Does Iran Win The Iraq War? ·Al Qaeda: The Franchise· Saudi Women Hit The Workplace

Aug 17, 2010 5:30am

DOES IRAN WIN THE IRAQ WAR? A senior U.S. government official, dismayed by what he calls a premature U.S. withdrawal, recently turned to me and said, "Iraq is like a trillion dollar balloon that’s floating away. And we’re watching it float toward Tehran." The strategic implications for America and its allies, he added, are "catastrophic." Iran’s influence in Iraq is both overt and subtle. It's evident in Iranian products on Iraqi shelves, in strong ties of faith, and in Tehran’s open lines to all of Iraq’s political power players (including, said the U.S. official, to Sunni-backed and secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, who’s often seen as the bulwark against Iranian influence in Iraq). "In short, Iran infiltrates the top echelons of the Iraqi authority. Iran is in government departments and among the average Iraqis," political analyst Liqa Makki said on a recent Al Jazeera talk show. Other analysts see the so-called "Great Iraqi Oil Rush," playing for an estimated 100 billion barrels in untapped fields, as especially attractive to Iran as the squeeze of sanctions slows its own oil production and revenues. Yet the struggle over resources like oil and water may prove Iraq's willingness to resist Iran’s meddling. Last year a skirmish erupted over the ill-defined Iran-Iraq border, along Iraq’s oil rich southern region. Iraqi Shiite leaders had harsh words for their Iranian neighbors, accusing them of seizing oil wells. "Iraqis mostly dislike Iran — and I mean really, really dislike Iran. If they felt strong enough to stand up to Iran, they absolutely would," said Kenneth Pollack, a former NSA and CIA official, in remarks published by the Brookings Institution. "If they are scared of violence, and scared that no one else is going to help them deal with the violence, then the [Shiite] tend to fall back on Iran not because they like them, but as the only game in town." As the U.S. begins Operation New Dawn on Sept. 1, Iraq will likely remain without a government, mired in political squabbles five months after its election. The chatter on the Arab street, especially on the Sunni side, charges America with abandonment for leaving Iraq in a political vacuum — a deeply entrenched view that the U.S. is trying to overturn. "Iraq belongs to Iran now," I heard from an Abu Dhabi royal. "We’re never going to get it back." That may just be Sunni alarmism, says author and Iraq analyst Nir Rosen. But he and others agree that Iran has actually gained from the Iraq War. Foremost for Iranian leaders, many of whom fought Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, America took out a mortal enemy and a rival in the regional power game. "There was a point where Iran was very afraid, when this looked like an easy war for America and it looked like they were next," said Rosen from Baghdad. With the chaos that followed and the violence that continues today — perceived as signs of failed U.S. policy — the Iranian regime feels more secure and better positioned to project its power, hard and soft, across the Middle East. More links:
» Council on Foreign Relations: Heading for the Exits in Iraq | Iran Wins a Round in Iraq
» Congressional Research Service (2009): Iran’s Activities & Influence in Iraq
» TIME: Requiem for a Profound Misadventure | Iraq Pundit Blog: Iran is Winning Here
AL QAEDA: A GROWING FRANCHISE THAT MAY BE GROWING THINThe Persian Gulf shuddered when an al Qaeda-linked group claimed last month’s explosion on an oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, the waterway that sees passage of 40 percent of the world’s shipped oil. The attack did little damage, but sent a huge message: Al Qaeda can strike in the Strait, a show of broader geographical reach and continued commitment to hitting the global oil supply. As information on the attack trickled out, eyes moved toward the two major nodes of al Qaeda in the neighborhood: the so-called Al Qaeda Central, across Afghanistan and Pakistan, largely neutered by the U.S. invasion, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, created from a merger of militants in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. AQAP has grown bolder and more aggressive since it emerged in 2006 and is now the subject of what’s being called a "shadow war" of U.S. drone strikes (one Pentagon official told me "Yemen is pretty much letting us do what we need/want to get the job done" without a ground invasion). As the oil tanker investigation unfolded, so did the questions. Did the group that claimed the attack come out of AfPak or AQAP? Or was it a one-off? Was it al Qaeda at all? From here in the region, the words "al Qaeda-linked" and "al Qaeda-inspired" can sound dubious — a tag phrase used by jihad wannabes, or a label applied by governments to any group with a grievance. Out of the confusion came a portrait of al Qaeda, through the eyes of the Arab world. Al Qaeda looks and operates like a franchise, in a string of autonomous groups stretching from Morocco to Chechnya to the Philippines. As Ken Menkhaus said on CNN, "All Jihad is Local." Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb plays on border disputes and bare pockets of the Sahara, financing itself through narcotics, kidnapping and human traffic. Al Qaeda in Iraq, which had been mostly gutted, is becoming more active and/or visible as Baghdad goes months without a central government. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula makes use of Yemen’s tribal highlands and fractured politics. In Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda has elevated women to unprecedented operational roles, a twist of ideology to evade authority. "Al Qaeda now is a brand and each local affiliate is different, from relations to the tribe, to what extent they’re comfortable killing innocent Muslims, and to what extent they focus on local grievances," said Shadi Hamid, a researcher with the Brookings Institution’s outpost in Doha. A security expert who advises the Abu Dhabi government and preferred not to be named said that for the most part, al Qaeda only operates as a unified network in marketing and recruitment, or when one branch needs help. "Each one as a different leadership. Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is not giving orders," said the consultant. As the brand expands, is it wearing thin? "There’s no doubt," says Hamid. "Al Qaeda doesn’t have the kind of ideological strength it had back in 2004. It’s hard to take it seriously as an organization that’s offering an alternative model for Arab populations." But people still sympathize with al Qaeda’s stated causes, he says – chiefly, the rights of Palestinians and anger about U.S. support for dictators. Dr. Fares Braizat, a pollster and political scientist, says that in his native Jordan views of al Qaeda as a "legitimate resistance" dropped from 67 percent in 2004 to 20 percent in 2005, after a spate of domestic attacks. "Since 2005 the figure has fluctuated," he said. "Roughly a third sees it as legitimate, a third sees it as a terrorist organization, a third says they don’t know. That largely applies around the region." More links:
» The New York Times: Secret Assault on Terrorism Widens Across Two Continents
» State Department’s annual Country Reports on Terrorism, released this month | Analysis from CS Monitor | NY Times
» ABC News/The Blotter Terrorism Coverage | Foreign Policy: Al Qaeda Central, the Definitive Guide
QUIET REVOLUTION: SAUDI WOMEN IN THE WORKPLACE There’s a quiet revolution happening in Saudi Arabia, where inches of change have created an expanse of new freedoms and opportunities for women in the workplace. Women make up an estimated 15 percent of the Saudi labor force, up from nearly nothing a generation ago. The advent of ATM machines and women’s bank branches has meant a world of financial freedom – accelerated by banks competing to manage the $12 billion in personal wealth held by Saudi women. The Kingdom’s women outnumber men on college campuses – in part because men have more opportunity to study abroad, but it creates a glut of educated Saudi women looking to put their skills to work. Meanwhile, a top-down commitment to reform is encouraging more industries to hire them. Anecdotally, Saudi women tell me the right to drive is not their top priority (they say dropping the need for a male guardian is more important). But here is where the driving ban can really pinch: for middle- and low-income families, whose mothers go out to earn a much-needed second salary, much of it gets spent on her driver. Economic necessity is pushing the change. I’ve visited two factories that put low-income women to work, making light fixtures and packing boxes of biscuits. Many of the women were divorced, widowed, or abandoned; just five years ago they would have suffered for the chance to earn a living wage. In both companies, owners said that Saudi woman work better, harder, and more efficiently than their male counterparts – creating a growing preference for women workers that’s accelerating their drive into the workforce. Reem Asaad has led a successful boycott against Saudi lingerie shops that only hire male clerks. She calls it ‘humiliating’ for women to discuss their unmentionables with men, especially in a Kingdom that strictly separates the sexes, and sees it as another way women are locked out of the workplace. As we patrolled the malls of Jeddah, checking on lingerie shops, she used her background as an economist to explain the rationale: “I needed to inform these women of their power as consumers and that the industry is living off their pockets, that given this power they can do a lot more,” she said. “Things were unacceptable and I just said, you know what? I'm not going to take it anymore.” If there’s a brain trust and beachhead for the rights of working women it’s the Khadijah Bint Khowailid Center of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. A government body that lobbies for reform, the Center is named for the Prophet Mohammed’s first wife, a successful businesswoman who was at one point a single, working mother. At the Center she’s seen as a strategic role model and patron saint: with today’s businesswomen pulling their example from Islam’s holy texts, how could Saudi’s conservative clerics object? But still, they do. The head of the Khadijah Bint Khowailid Center described to me the result of their small wins and frequent setbacks. “Sometimes we change something in law, but we can’t get it enforced in practice. Other times we’ll change a reality or social mindset, but we can’t change the law,” said Dr. Basmah Al Omair. She and Assad and others are the agents of change – clearing the way for greater freedoms that are always at risk of reversal, but are being baked into the attitudes and expectations of a new generation.More links:
» The Khadija Bint Khowailid Center for Saudi Businesswomen
» Human Rights Watch reports on Saudi Women as Perpetual Minors | Trapped in Saudi Arabia
» TIME Magazine’s Photo Essay on Saudi Women
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