Bold steps embolden nation

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, center, with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Naif, right, and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, center, with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Naif, right, and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman’s first 100 days in office have been marked by a series of bold decisions that have left Saudis pleasantly surprised at the measures taken after what seemed a long period over the last several years where the Kingdom just seemed to be coasting along on its reputation as the center of the Muslim world.
The unrelenting march of the Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen, taking over the capital Sanaa last year and then forcing Yemeni President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee to Aden and then to Saudi Arabia when they bombed his Aden office, moved King Salman to decide to intervene militarily in Yemen along with a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Arab and Muslim coalition of more than 10 nations. Critical to this decision no doubt was his son Prince Mohammad bin Salman, recently appointed the deputy crown prince, and our current defense minister. Only 30 years old, Prince Mohammad is known for his hard work and determination to get things done, and we are now seeing this in the campaign in Yemen to halt the advance of Houthi troops and reinstate the legitimate government of Hadi.

Our new Crown Prince Mohammad bin Naif, a youthful 55 years old, brings years of experience as interior minister fighting the scourge of Al-Qaeda, having survived an attack on his life by this nefarious terrorist group. The crown prince while being tough on the terrorists of Al-Qaeda has also realized that many of its members are disaffected youth that have been led astray by the deviant, hateful and bloody ideology spouted by the group, and therefore started a de-radicalization program run by the Ministry of Interior aimed at re-educating captured members of the group and offering them a way back into Saudi society by giving them jobs and marriage possibilities. For sure, some of the program’s participants have relapsed and returned to the folds of Al-Qaeda, but that is to be expected, as no program is 100 percent effective when it comes to ideology and what really stays in a person’s mind and heart.
Other appointments by King Salman to his Cabinet have injected new blood into the highest echelon of the Saudi government, giving a much younger generation of Saudis the chance to have a say in how the country is governed. My good friend Adel Al-Toraifi, who is only 36, is now the culture and information minister. I was very glad to hear of his appointment, remembering our many conversations about Middle East politics over cups of coffee whenever he used to visit Jeddah from Riyadh. Likewise, it was exciting to hear of the appointment of Adel Al-Jubeir as our new minister of foreign affairs, who at 53 is only a few years older than me. I still remember working with him at the end of the 1980s when I helped cover a Saudi exhibition for Arab News in Washington and he was just starting his career at the Saudi Embassy there.
But perhaps most intriguing have been the recent sackings of several officials by the king after they misbehaved in public and their shenanigans were caught on video and quickly posted on social media on the Internet for all to see. In April the then health minister, Ahmed Khatib, was caught on video having a heated argument with a citizen who was complaining that his sick father was getting poor treatment at a private hospital. Khatib could be heard dismissing the man’s complaints. After the clip was posted online there were many angry reactions and King Salman sacked the minister. The crown prince decided to treat the father of the man in the video.
Later in April, King Salman banned Prince Mamdouh bin Abdulrahman from speaking to all media and from taking part in any sports activities after he made racist remarks on a live sports television program against a Saudi sports journalist, denigrating him for being of foreign descent. Online commentators praised the king for his action, saying that it showed that all Saudis should be treated the same and with respect. Indeed, in March King Salman stressed how all Saudis are the same in a speech he gave: “There are no differences among Saudi people or areas,” he said. “We are determined to address the roots of the divergences and the causes of divisions so that we can eliminate the categorization of the society in a way that harms national unity. All Saudis are equal in rights and duties,” he said.
This month the king replaced the head of royal protocol after the official was caught on camera slapping a photojournalist in the face at the airport in Riyadh when he was covering the arrival of Morocco’s King Mohammad VI. Happening just a few meters away from where King Salman was warmly greeting the Moroccan king, Mohammad Al-Tibaishi, the royal protocol official in question, was caught on camera slapping the journalist. While I know that journalists can be quite pushy and aggressive while trying to cover such important events, nothing ever justifies physical violence in such circumstances.
With all of these actions, King Salman is showing immense resolve to show the Kingdom’s determination to defend its strategic and national interests by intervening in Yemen and sacking Saudi officials who disrespect the Saudi people. This has given much pride and hope to the average Saudi citizen, who feels happy that the Saudi leadership is taking charge of our country’s destiny instead of allowing it to be too affected by foreign powers. We are a strong nation that can and should decide its own future. The time has come and all Saudis should rise to the challenge.
We’ve had too many years of complaining and expecting that others will solve our problems. We can do it ourselves, and we should be proud that we are able to do so.

http://www.arabnews.com/columns/news/744761

A tough task ahead in Yemen

A Houthi militiaman sits at a tank near the presidential palace in Sanaa, Yemen.

A Houthi militiaman sits at a tank near the presidential palace in Sanaa, Yemen.

This is my column that was printed in Arab News on January 25, 2015:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

After days of bloody clashes this week between the militias of the Houthi rebels and government forces in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital — which included bombing the presidential palace and laying siege to it, leaving President Abdu Rabbuh Mansour Hadi stuck inside for days — Hadi was forced to accede to the demands of Houthis. He granted greater participation to the rebel movement in all military and civilian agencies, and in return the group promised to withdraw from strategic areas of the capital and to release the presidential chief of staff who they had kidnapped on Saturday.

The president also promised to review a draft Constitution that would divide the country into six new administrative regions. The Houthis claimed that they felt aggrieved and disadvantaged in the new plan. Then on Thursday night, with no withdrawal of Houthi forces from key installations in the capital as had been promised, Hadi and his entire Cabinet resigned, saying they were too frustrated to continue.

But we have seen all of this before in September 2014 when the Houthis brutally swept into the capital, killing 300 people and demanding that the Hadi government share power with them. Cornered and scared, and after weeks of clashes, the president agreed and signed an agreement with the Houthis. The rebels took control of various ministries and financial institutions, but continued to remain excluded from other centers of power. In his reluctance in sharing power, Hadi has the support of other Sunni political parties in the country, which do not want to share their power with the Houthis, which as Shiites make up only 30 percent of the population.

The Houthis insist that there was no coup, but when you use heavy weapons against the president’s palace; attack the president’s guards; keep him prisoner in his palace for days, and take control of state TV and radio stations, what should one call it then?
The only person I heard in Yemen have the courage to say it was a coup was the now ex-Minister of Information Nadia Al-Sakkaf in an interview by phone with a CNN correspondent in Sanaa on Tuesday night.

US naval forces intercepted ships with Iranian weapons off of the Yemeni coast in 2012, proving that Iranian military support was being given to the Houthis.
On Wednesday, the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) accused the Houthis of a coup against the legitimate authority in Yemen, and warned that the Gulf countries would “take all necessary measures to protect their security and stability, and their vital interests in Yemen.” They even offered to send a mediator to Sanaa to help in negotiations between Hadi and the Houthis.

Saudi Arabia has been the main source of foreign aid to Yemen for the last few decades, providing generous amounts of oil and other aid. This financial assistance has been almost completely stopped since September 2014 when the Houthis took control of Sanaa.
Hadi has also been a major ally of Washington, an enthusiast of the US drone program that kills targets of the Al-Qaeda. With $1.4 billion in American aid already spent in Yemen since 2009 in economic and military aid, and an additional $232 million scheduled to be disbursed this year, the administration of President Barack Obama is very reluctant to call what is happening in Yemen now a coup because under US law any aid from Washington has to be suspended if there is a military coup in a country. So get ready for verbal acrobatics from American officials in the coming weeks in order to not call a coup “a coup.”

Beyond the threat of Houthis, Yemen also faces a secessionist movement in the south, and the brutality of Al-Qaeda. The audacity of the Houthis and their use of force show that there is not much room to negotiate with them. They want more power, period. Certainly Iran is behind this sudden show of action and courage and it is buying an ugly fight with the Gulf countries and the US.

http://www.arabnews.com/columns/news/694431

Gulf union put off

Gulf leaders gathered in Riyadh with their host Saudi King Abdullah ibn Abdul Aziz on May 14, 2012.

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Perhaps it was because of the outcry among citizens of many Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, worried that their unique social and political systems would be steamrollered by their giant neighbour Saudi Arabia, that Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal announced Monday night in Riyadh, after a GCC summit meeting, that the planned union of GCC states had been put off until December.

“GCC states will continue discussions on a possible union of the six nations, but any such plan will take time. The aim is for all countries to join, not just two or three,” said Prince Saud. “Iran should keep out of the kingdom’s relations with Bahrain, even if the two states decide to form a union,” he added, responding to Iranian MPs who had earlier condemned the reported plan for a union between Saudi Arabia and its tiny neighbour Bahrain.

Last year Saudi Arabia led a GCC force of 1,500 troops that went into Bahrain at the request of the ruling Al-Khalifa family to help put down a rebellion by the majority Shia population.The GCC, which was formed in 1981 following the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the onset of the Iran-Iraq war, is composed of the six Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

The GCC has succeeded in implementing a joint import customs tariff that all members follow, as well as measures that allow citizens of these states to live, work and set up businesses in each others’ countries without the need for special visas or permissions.Efforts towards a common currency foundered in 2009 after Oman dropped out of the plan in 2006 and the UAE also pulled out after a squabble with Saudi Arabia over where a GCC central bank would be headquartered. The UAE wanted it in their capital, Abu Dhabi, while the Saudis wanted it in Riyadh.

Expectations were high that some sort of union would be announced in Riyadh this week, especially after Saudi King Abdullah had announced the union plans last December, and after comments by Bahraini King Hamad this week that he welcomed the establishment of the union. But there has also been a steady stream of opposition from Bahrainis on Twitter and even from Saudis in the local media, afraid that the openness of several Gulf states would be squashed in a union with super-conservative Saudi Arabia.

“I will join the opposition against the Gulf union if it forces Kuwait, which is the only GCC country that enjoys free parliamentary elections, to cancel its parliamentary system… just to please Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman,” wrote Abdel-Rahman Al-Rashid, Saudi head of the satellite TV news channel Al-Arabiya, in an opinion piece for Arab News daily.

In February, even Kuwait’s speaker of parliament, Ahmed Al-Saadoun expressed his doubts on a Gulf union in comments to Al-Arabiya, saying: “It is very difficult for a country like Kuwait that grants freedom of speech, and where people are represented in parliament, to form a union with countries whose prisons are full of thousands who are guilty [only] of speaking their minds. We will be fooling ourselves if we think that any kind of union can be reached if governments do not offer compromises and start granting their people more rights.”

It was the vagueness of the GCC union plans that led to much speculation and fear of what it would actually entail. Several analysts pointed out the need for clarity on what such a union would entail, underlining the need to keep individual social and political characteristics intact in each member country, in order to make the plan viable.

“The GCC governments haven’t made it clear exactly what they mean by a union. Will it remain a collection of sovereign states like the existing GCC, or is there a genuine desire to create supra-national institutions that would override state sovereignty in some areas, as in the EU or currency unions like the West African franc?” asked Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House in London, in interview.

Even the assistant secretary general of the GCC, Abdel-Aziz Al-Uwaisheg, admitted in an opinion article for Arab News that there needed to be clear goals for a union to be successful: “For it to be effective, the union has to have a clear statement of purpose as well as the right institutions to run such a project. Without infringing on member states’ sovereignty, the union has to vest those institutions with enough mandate and authority to fulfil its member states’ goals and meet the challenges, both old and new, that the region faces,” he wrote.

Al-Rashid explained that these fears of sovereignty being squashed were mistaken, and that King Abdullah had in mind an alliance of Gulf states that would not be an all-out federation. “The proposal had clearly stated the new union would not interfere in the sovereignty of member countries. If we take the proposal positively, we can understand that it would not be aimed at imposing any other system or nullifying the character of a member country or side-lining any ethnic group,” he wrote.

But why the sudden push for an even closer alliance of Gulf states? Several analysts believe that the perceived threat of Iran in the region, and fear of the effects of the Arab Spring uprisings reaching its shores, is what pushed Saudi Arabia to start pushing for the plan last December.

“Iran is a major driving factor. It was the Iranian Revolution that helped to encourage the Gulf states to form the GCC in the first place,” said Kinninmont. “The wider changes in the Arab world are also a factor. They have already pushed the GCC countries to try to show more of a united front towards issues in Yemen, Libya and Syria.”

But Madawi Al-Rashid, a professor of social anthropology at Kings College in London, and a frequent critic of Saudi Arabia, said that she believed that the real motivation behind the proposed union is that of dictators rallying together to protect themselves from demands for democracy from their own populations.

“The union is an ad hoc response to deep problems that the ruling families are not willing to resolve: Giving more power to their citizens, increasing political participation, and improving their human rights records,” said Al-Rashid in interview.

“Externally the GCC States remain dependent on the US for security. They are also worried that the US will reach an agreement with Iran at their expense. This is the root of their anxiety. But I think that a union of authoritarian regimes is a temporary pact that will be counterproductive. It will simply increase the complexity of internal politics and mess up the real challenges facing the GCC now, mainly democratisation, unemployment and corruption, especially in Saudi Arabia.”

With so many doubts and fears in the minds of GCC citizens, it remains to be seen how Saudi Arabia can pull off a union that manages to maintain the unique differences of each Gulf state, while at the same time bringing the benefits of unified economic and military policies in a region that is far from calm and friendly.

Al-Ahram Weekly Online : Located at: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2012/1098/re6.htm

No Arab Spring for Bahrain

A protester in Bahrain holds up a picture of jailed human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja.

Torture and death lurk behind the return of Bahrain’s glitzy Formula 1 race, writes Rasheed Abul-Samh

 

THE government of Bahrain was sure that hosting the Formula 1 race again last Sunday, after it was cancelled last year because of the violent clashes between mostly Shia protesters and police, would surely be a sign that things were improving and that the nation was finally healing.

But the island-state went into a virtual lockdown to produce an event that was devoid of many spectators, while violent clashes occurred in the villages surrounding the capital Manama, with many injured and at least one death.

The now 14-month long civil war between the majority-Shia, who want more rights and a constitutional monarchy, and the Al-Khalifa ruling family, who are Sunni, had dropped off the radars of most international media, who had been much more attracted by the other revolts of the Arab Spring such as the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and the ongoing fighting in Syria. Now, the media attention returned, if only for one weekend and for all the wrong reasons.

The hunger strike of Abdel-Hadi Al-Khawaja, a prominent 50-year-old human rights activist, who has not had any solid food for more than two months, came to symbolise the desperation that so many of Bahrain’s Shia feel towards a government that despite cosmetic attempts at reform, has obstinately refused to share power, release hundreds of political prisoners, or reinstate those sacked from their jobs after taking part in anti- government protests that started on 14 February 2011.

A Bahrain court heard appeals on Monday from defence lawyers for Al-Khawaja and seven other Shia activists, who were all sentenced to life in prison last year following their involvement in the protests, and want to have their sentences overturned. Unfortunately, the court adjourned to 30 April, leaving Al-Khawaja’s family deeply worried that he may not survive until then. One of his daughters, Mariam, told the Danish TV2 channel that doctors predict he has only two or three more days to live.

“Al-Khawaja’s fate will have considerable impact on what happens in Bahrain, at least in the short run,” said Toby Jones, associate professor of history at Rutgers University, and who has been closely following developments in Bahrain. “A move to have him retried in a civilian court would be a positive development, but I suspect most Bahrainis would see such a move as too little, too late. And given his grave condition, there are serious concerns that he may not live long enough to see a new trial through. His death will unleash a new round of protests and based on past regime responses, will lead to more anti-protester violence.”

King Hamad bin Eissa Al-Khalifa formed an international investigation panel last year, led by Sherif Bassiouni, which was tasked into looking at the abuses committed when thousands of Bahraini protesters were arrested, jailed and tortured. The result was an impressive report that documented many abuses and recommended several reforms. The king has taken none, and as Mariam Al-Khawaja told a meeting of activists in Cairo this month, not a single high-ranking official was fired or punished for the abuses.

A main reason for the reluctance of the Al-Khalifas to implement any significant reforms is the fact that its rich benefactor neighbor, Saudi Arabia, has taken a hardline against the protesters, insisting that they are being instigated by Iran in order to create a Shia-ruled nation on its doorstep. The United States, which has its 5th Navy Fleet based in Bahrain, looked the other way in March of last year when Saudi troops rolled across the causeway into Bahrain, under the guise of being part of a Gulf Cooperation Council force that King Hamad had asked to come in. But Bahraini Shia have gone to great lengths to remain independent of Iran, and no credible evidence of any Iranian involvement in the unrest has been presented.

“There is no evidence of Iranian involvement. Their insistence is meant to justify their crackdown,” explained Jones. “The Saudis would view the loss of Bahrain as a vassal state as a strategic calamity. Even without Iranian involvement, it would result in a significant dent in Saudi hegemony in the Gulf.”

Jones also believes that the Saudis want to maintain the US military presence in Bahrain as a deterrent to what it sees as the Iranian threat.

“While the Saudis don’t want the Americans on their territory, they do want a US military presence nearby. Bahrain’s opposition have not said they would kick the 5th Fleet out of Manama, but Saudi Arabia certainly worries that that could be one result of a successful revolution there,” said Jones. “The Saudis also know that the American geopolitical priority in the Gulf is to contain Iran. By repeatedly insisting that Iran is behind the Bahraini uprising, Riyadh seeks to appeal to American anxieties. Even though the claims of Iranian meddling are wholly manufactured, they seem to be working. We have neither heard criticism nor seen constructive engagement by the US in Bahrain.”

Bahrainis remain deeply split between those who want to keep the royal family as is, those who want it reformed and made more democratic, and those who want them gone completely.

“Some Bahrainis are saying: ‘We do not want the Al-Khalifa regime,’ and others are saying, mostly the political societies, that we need a constitutional monarchy first. So there is a difference in opinion,” Zainab Al-Khawaja, another daughter of Abdel-Hadi, said in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly late last year.

“If you ask me personally, I want to see all the top members of the royal family on trial. I don’t want a constitutional monarchy where the same people who are responsible for killing our children, for torturing our fathers, for beating our sisters, remain on their thrones and live peacefully and happily ever after. It’s not the way that this is supposed to happen,” she said.

Yet with the government not releasing political prisoners and unwilling to even talk about sharing power, the situation in Bahrain seems to be grim and is already slipping into more violence, with protesters using more Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs against security forces, much like their counterparts in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province.

“Bahrain is on edge. The regime clearly thinks it has a winning strategy. But it has in fact sown the seeds of permanent conflict and resistance. The regime has sealed Manama off from the worst of the violence, but in order to sustain that it is forced to carry out a permanent wave of oppression and brutality in the country’s villages,” concluded Jones.

Al-Ahram Weekly Online : Located at: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2012/1095/re1.htm

Who will investigate the use of Brazilian tear gas in Bahrain?

 This is a translation from Portuguese of my column that appeared in the March 9, 2012 edition of O Globo:

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The Brazilian foreign ministry Itamaraty and Condor Non-Lethal Technologies must find us naive. After my report on the misuse of Brazilian-made tear gas against pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain (O Globo, 9/1), the Folha de S. Paulo reported (11/1) that the foreign ministry would investigate whether there was breach of contract in the use of gas in Bahrain.

I was waiting for a report from the so-called investigation. Then came an article entitled “Brazil, Producer and Exporter of Arms”, published by the Brazilian investigative site A Publica, on Jan. 27, which said the following: “Itamaraty itself acknowledges that it has no power of investigation: after the scandal of Bahrain, the office of the Itamaraty spokesman said that the ministry was only ‘watching with interest’ as the story unfolds…. ‘It is a contract between private parties. It may even involve a foreign government, but responsibility for its product lies with its manufacturer,’ said the foreign ministry.”

I sent six questions to Itamaraty on the use of Brazilian tear gas in Bahrain, my main question being: “It seems that the Brazilian government is washing its hands of any responsibility for the misuse of Brazilian-made tear gas in Bahrain. Why? Does Brazil not think it is important to safeguard the human rights of civilians in a civil war situation, or are Brazilian economic interests more important than human rights? ”

I also asked if Brazil had sent a diplomat to Bahrain to investigate. This was the non-response I received: “This office states that the jurisdiction of the ministry and other public administration bodies on the matter in question is clearly defined by the National Policy on the Export of Military Equipment.”

This policy, known by the acronym PNEMEM in Portuguese, is not very demanding. A Brazilian exporter needs to submit just three things: 1. An import permit from the importing country; 2. An End User Certificate 3. In the case of countries in which the import of these materials is unregulated, a statement from the Brazilian diplomatic mission in importing country or from the importing country’s diplomatic mission in Brazil, is needed.

I called Condor in Rio de Janeiro and talked to their marketing manager, Massilon Miranda, who repeated the statement made in December that his company had never sold tear gas to Bahrain, but may have sold the gas to neighboring countries. Perhaps one of the armed forces of one of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, which were deployed in Bahrain last year to help the Bahraini royal family quell the demonstrations, had used the gas made in Brazil? Perhaps, but the way things are going, I do not think we will ever know for sure. Certainly not if we depend on Itamaraty or Condor for confirmation.

It is striking that Condor has the inability to admit that its tear gas could have been used in Bahrain. “There was never any confirmation that any person has died a victim of tear gas — even more so Brazilian gas — in Bahrain,” said Miranda. “Maybe activists are doing this campaign [against gas] to limit the means that police have to use against them. Is all that smoke actually from tear gas?”

The photo of a used canister of tear gas manufactured by it, emblazoned with the Brazilian flag, released by activists in Bahrain; the two deaths caused by Brazilian gas as reported by Zainab al-Khawaja, and miles of video showing security forces in Bahrain throwing thousands of canisters of tear gas against protesters, are not enough to convince the spokesperson of the Condor that it became involved in a civil war, whether it likes it or not?

The Brazilian government has a policy to help the export of arms manufactured in the country, and President Dilma Rousseff signed a provisional order in September exempting Brazilian manufacturers of armaments from taxes. Brazil has a long history of exporting heavy and light weapons to areas of conflict areas since the 1970s. The country sold many weapons to the regime of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s when Iraq was at war with Iran for eight years.

Not surprisingly, Itamaraty is in the difficult position of wanting to help Brazilian exports of weapons, but at the same time must feel a certain discomfort in seeing Brazilian-made tear gas, supposedly non-lethal, being used against children, women and old people. There is a responsibility on the part of Itamaraty and Condor to investigate, ascertain and possibly even suspend arms sales to Arab countries, since the end use of the exported tear gas was not in the country of the government that bought the gas from Brazil. It’s the least we can do to rescue the reputation of Brazil as a country that cares about human rights — not only of Brazilians, but also of other people with a thirst for more freedom and dignity.

The cold war between the US and Iran just warmed up

Here is a translation of my column that appeared in Portuguese on January 13, 2012, in O Globo newspaper of Brazil:

RASHEED ABOU-ALSAMH

The announcement by Iran earlier this month that it could close the Strait of Hormuz, was an aggressive reaction to the new US law signed by President Barack Obama on the last day of December, which says the US may impose sanctions on any country in the world having financial dealings with the Iranian Central Bank.

Soon after the EU announced it would impose sanctions on Iranian oil imports to the continent. Both actions were seen in Tehran as a declaration of economic war against the Islamic Republic. A few days earlier, just before Christmas, the United States announced the sale of a package of F-16 fighter planes to Saudi Arabia and other weapons worth a fantastical $30 billion, part of a wider arms sale of $60 billion to the kingdom.

That was not by chance. For decades now a permanent Cold War of containment between the US and Iran has been taking place in the Persian Gulf and the greater Middle East with the Gulf Arab countries always in the forefront of this battle.

The conflict between the West, the Sunni Arab kingdoms of the Gulf, and Iran has been ongoing for 33 years, ever since the Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini toppled the pro-American dictatorship of Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979. Since the beginning of the rule of the ayatollahs, Iran has tried to export its Islamic revolution to the rest of the Middle East. This led Iranian pilgrims to hold annual anti-American and anti-Israeli demonstrations during the Haj in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, beginning in 1981. They culminated in a deadly confrontation with Saudi security forces in 1987, which left 400 pilgrims dead and thousands wounded. After this tragedy, Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations with Iran for several years, and relations have been rocky ever since.

Iranians have always had a predilection of wanting to help their co-religionists and the weak in the Middle East, leading Iran to support economically, diplomatically and morally the Shiite Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, and even the Sunni Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip. But this has led to a frontal collision with American and Saudi interests in the region.

The Iranian nuclear program, which was started in the 1950s by the Shah with American aid, and resumed in the 1980s by the ayatollahs, which even received technical assistance from Argentina, is the pivot of the latest confrontation between Iran and the West. The US, France, Britain and Germany have accused Iran of developing nuclear energy to make atomic bombs, a charge Tehran vehemently denies.

The reality is that Iran needs nuclear power to produce electricity to meet the needs of its nearly 74 million citizens. Even the UAE and Saudi Arabia announced last year the beginning of civilian nuclear energy programs worth billions of dollars with support from the US and South Korean and French companies. All these countries are embarking on the wave of nuclear power to release valuable oil reserves, now used to generate electricity for their people at subsidized prices, for export.

Although Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta admitted in an interview with CBS television this month that the Iranians are not trying to develop a nuclear weapon, but a nuclear capability, the beaters of the drums of war, unfortunately, seem to have the advantage for now in Washington.

It is ironic that a Democratic president, Obama, has been far more belligerent towards the Iranians than the Republican President George W. Bush was. But the problem here is that the US is sending mixed signals, claiming that it wants a dialogue with the regime of Mahmoud Ahmajinedad, while threatening Iran with a possible attack on its nuclear facilities if it does not stop trying, allegedly, to develop a nuclear weapon.

Observers in the region have said they do not think Iran will block the Strait of Hormuz, as they would be the biggest losers, given that their biggest buyers of oil are India and China. In any event, the UAE are almost ready with their pipeline that bypasses the Strait of Hormuz and, when ready in June, will carry oil from Abu Dhabi directly to the Gulf of Oman. Saudi Arabia has a ready network of pipelines that could carry crude oil to the Eastern Province ports on its western Red Sea coast.

The West along with Israel, which has felt threatened by Iran ever since Ahmajinedad said some years ago that he wanted to push the Jewish state into the sea, are undertaking a subversive war against the Iranian nuclear program with a series of murders of Iranian nuclear scientists, the latest this Wednesday, and the introduction of viruses to sabotage Iranian computers.

Everyone knows how disastrous to the whole world a war between Iran and the West would be, but still there are many in the US government who want to bet on tightening sanctions on Iran so strongly that it would lead to regime change in Tehran. But Iran has survived more than 30 years of economic sanctions and a bloody eight-year war with Iraq. The Iranian people see their nuclear program with nationalist pride, so any attack on Iran would strengthen popular support for the regime.

What the world needs urgently is the intervention of regional powers like Brazil and Turkey in order to defuse the tension between the West and Iran, which if ignored will possibly lead to a disastrous and totally avoidable war.

Brazil to investigate use of tear gas in Bahrain

A used Brazilian tear gas canister photographed by protesters in Bahrain. Note the "Made in Brazil" tag and the Brazilian flag.

THE Brazilian Foreign Ministry, Itamaraty, announced on Tuesday (10/01/2012) that it was going to investigate the lethal use of Brazilian-made tear gas against pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain, following the publication of my story in O Globo newspaper on Monday in which I quote Bahraini activist Zainab al-Khawaja saying that Brazilian-made tear gas was responsible for the deaths of at least two children.

The Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper carried the news this morning in its print edition and online. Click here to read the story in Portuguese.

Here is my quick translation of their story into English:

Brazilian foreign ministry investigates the use of tear gas in Bahrain

Claudia Antunes

Rio

The Brazilian Foreign Ministry said Tuesday it is examining whether there was a breach of contract in the use of tear gas made by a Brazilian company, Condor Non-Lethal Technologies, against pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain.

Re-exports of arms without the authorization of the seller country is prohibited, and Condor has not sold tear gas to the monarchy of the Persian Gulf, according to the company and the foreign ministry.

The most likely hypothesis, however, is that the gas was used by one of the other five monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia, which sent troops to Bahrain in March 2011 to support the King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.

Condor, a maker of “non-lethal” weapons and ammunition based in Rio and that earns 30% of its earnings in exports, has confirmed that countries in the region are clients, but does not reveal which ones.

The use of the tear gas was denounced by activists from Bahrain and reported in the newspaper “O Globo” by journalist and blogger Rasheed Abou-Alsamh.

Activists attribute the death of a baby to a substance of the gas, whose main chemical agent is chlorobenzylidene malononitrilo.

Condor said it received the news of the baby’s death with “disbelief”, stating that its tear gas is also used in Brazil and in 40 other countries and that it follows “international safety standards.”

PRIORITY

This case calls attention to the lack of transparency in arms exports, when it is Brazil’s official policy to encourage the domestic arms industry.

In September, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed an interim measure to exempt such manufacturers from taxes, which the defense ministry says is aimed to put them on equal footing with foreign competitors.

At the time, Dilma said that one of its goals was to increase exports.

These sales must be authorized by the foreign ministry and the Directorate of Controlled Products Inspection, linked to the command of the Brazilian Army.

Asked if there is no political obstacle to the sale of weapons of crowd control to dictatorships, the Foreign Ministry said an analysis is made on a case-by-case basis.

Government and companies claim confidentiality agreements in not disclosing details of sales, and say this is international practice.

Legislation to be submitted to Congress by the defense ministry would provide for the setting-up of a public database on acquisitions and sales of weapons.

Numbers available today in the Ministry of Development show that exports of arms and ammunition, excluding dual-use items like jeeps and helicopters, grew 320% between 2000 and 2011, from $69.7 million to $293 million.

Brazil sold $19.5 million worth of weapons between 2006 and 2011 to five countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Kuwaitis), according to this data.

In the ranking of leading global weapons exporters, according to the International Institute for Peace Studies in Stockholm, Brazil was in 14th position in 2010. The list is headed by far by the US and Russia.

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