BY SHASHI MALLA
• Confrontation Between Iran & Political West Escalates: Is Trump Preparing for War?*
There is little doubt that in the face of the political West’s piecemeal provocations and the United States’ crippling economic sanctions, Iran has been forced to undertake calculated – and perhaps suicidal – escalation in the Persian Gulf–Strait of Hormuz—Gulf of Oman region.
The West’s tensions with Iran are escalating in spiral formation and the multilateral Iranian nuclear deal, signed four years ago, is on its last legs after Trump gave it the kiss of death, and the other signatories – UK, France, Germany, EU, China and Russia – have been unable or unwilling to resuscitate the all-important agreement. The US withdrew from the deal unilaterally – only because it was Obama’s legacy and Trump detests everything to do with the former president – and has since imposed harsh sanctions on Iran on trumped up charges.
Iran’s leaders – or is it perhaps the commanders of the zealous Revolutionary Guards? – have seen no way out than to slowly and incrementally violate some of the terms of the agreement. Last week on Thursday, Iran took control of a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz following an incident in which the British Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar in the Mediterranean Sea.
Previously, US President Donald Trump claimed that a US warship had taken “defensive action” and shot down an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz after it reportedly came within 914 meters of the vessel, and ignored multiple calls to stand down. He again repeated: “This is the latest of many provocative and hostile actions by Iran against vessels operating in international waters.” Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad JavadZarif has rubbished these claims.
Germany and France last Saturday denounced Iran’s seizure of the British-flagged tanker “Stena Impero” in the Strait of Hormuz and called on the country to release the vessel immediately. The German Foreign Office tweeted: “This is an unjustifiable interference in commercial shipping that dangerously escalates an already tense situation.”
In the meantime, the US has started sending combat troops to Saudi Arabia amid mounting concerns among international experts that it [and its allies in the region – Saudi Arabia, UAE, possibly Egypt] are preparing for armed conflict with Iran. The US Central Command (CENTCOM) confirmed that the deployment “provides an additional deterrent, and ensures our ability to defend our forces and interests in the region from emergent, credible threats.”
This is the first deployment of American forces in the Saudi kingdom since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and the start of the ill-fated “War on Terror” by US President George W. Bush.
Donald J. Trump himself faces intense pressure and scrutiny on the domestic front, and he may finally succumb to persuasion by the hawks in his administration – Secretary of State Make Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton – to undertake an external military adventure. First, to finally initiate ‘regime change’ in Iran, and second to divert domestic attention from Trump’s personal travails.
The Mueller special investigation has after all highlighted Trump’s misdeeds: meddling, collusion, obstruction – possibly grounds for impeachment! The ongoing judicial probe against near-billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein [convicted philanderer of minors and former Trump friend]could reveal damaging details. These may also explain why Trump has been aggressively racist lately – to hog the news cycle and divert attention away.
• World’s Most Admired Woman: Michelle Obama *
According to a new “YouGov” poll, the former US First Lady Michelle Obama is still highly respected by people around the world. Not only that, she is now the most admired woman in the world, more than two years after her husband President Barack Obama left the White House [CBS News, July 21, 2019]. She supplanted the Hollywood actor Angelina Jolie, who has morphed into an internationally respected social activist. Michelle Obama is followed by the US TV personality Oprah Winfrey, Jolie, and British Queen Elizabeth II.
Michelle Obama attended Princeton University graduating cum laude [with honours] in Sociology, and went on to earn the Doctor of Jurisprudence (JD) degree from Harvard Law School. She has extensive experience in corporate law and public service.
• German Ursula von der Leyen elected President of the European Commission
Last week, members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France narrowly elected the still incumbent German defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen as president of the European Commission. She is the first woman in this position. She comes from Germany’s ruling centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) – in a grand coalition with the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) – and was proposed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, and nominated by various EU heads of state and government, i.e. she was not the lead candidate of her parliamentary group in the run-up to the selection of the new Commission president.
The European Commission is the executive branch of the European Union (EU). Its current president is Jean-Claude Juncker, a centre-right politician, and a former prime minister of Luxembourg. The 28-member Commission is responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, and the routine running of the EU.
There will be 28 commissioners, one for each member state of the EU, and von der Leyen would like each member state to put forward two candidates for each post. She also plans to “ensure full gender equality” among all her 28 commissioners and wants to strike a balance between the western and eastern member states, as well as between large and small ones, to ensure that each has a say on important issues. With this, she wants to reinvigorate the multinational organization.
However, von der Leyen is expected to take a no nonsense approach to policy issues. She has already announced that Poland and Hungary will be vigorously investigated for breaching the rule of law. She has, thus, taken a clear stand against the EU’s right-wing populists. She is also expected to take a more progressive approach with regard to migrants and asylum-seekers.
Ursula von der Leyen was born and raised in Brussels, where her father was a European civil servant. She was brought up bilingual in French and German. She first studied Economics in Goettingen, Muenster and the London School of Economics, where she also became fluent in English. She later switched to Medicine and received her MD and MPH from Hannover University.
She became involved in local politics in her native state of Lower Saxony, where her father had been the prime minister. She served here as cabinet minister and later in the federal government, where she became the longest serving minister in Angela Merkel’s government (Family Affairs & Youth, Labour & Social Affairs, Defense portfolios). She, therefore, brings depth and breadth of experience to the most important post of the EU.
• Aspen Security Forum: US Admiral Slams China for ‘Muscle Flexing’ in the South China Sea*
The 10th Annual Aspen Security Forum was held July 17-20 in Aspen, Colorado. The session was led by co-chairs, Professor Joe Nye of Harvard University and former Secretary of State Professor Condoleezza Rice of Stanford University. The introductory remarks were by Nick Burns, Executive Director of the “Aspen Strategy Group”, who stressed, inter alia, that “at this time of discord and division in America”, there is the necessity all the more to discuss the “transformation in the global power balance, of significant challenges to America’s national security, and for the first time since the Second World War, of persistent questions about America’s willingness to lead the world.”
Among other speakers on various topics, Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, censured Beijing for flexing its muscles in the South China Sea, and for not responding to the US’s call to set up a crisis communication mechanism [SCMP/South China Morning Post].
China and the US are engaged in dispute over military deployment in the Indo-Pacific region [i.e. the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific, including the East China and South China Seas]. Beijing has protested against freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, while the other littoral states – Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines – are most concerned about China’s military build-up there.
• Anglo-Nepal War & Sugauli Treaty Changed Everything: Brig. Gen. Prem Singh Basnyat (Retd.) *
In an opinion piece in “Republica” [January 20, 2019], retired army Brigadier General Prem Singh Basnyat briefly but eloquently elucidated how Nepal’s politics, history and economy changed after the military confrontation with the British East India Company. Basnyat narrates how at that time Nepal was the only independent nation in South Asia and remained independent forever, although the ‘House of Gorkha’ “collapsed like a house of cards.”
He also pinpoints the origins of the saga of bravery of Nepali soldiers and that of recruitment into the British-Indian Army – the ‘bravest of the brave’. However, from the standpoint of national prestige, he is against recruitment in foreign armies. He could perhaps explore this economic dilemma in future write-ups.
One could take issue with him on two points. First, he writes that had Nepal not lost so much territory in the south-east, it would today not be a land-locked country. This is a bit far-fetched, because the rivers would not be accessible to ocean-going ships [in spite of the ‘Oli narrative’], and from the geo-political standpoint, these rivers would still be under Indian control.
Second, he speaks of Lord Mountbatten as “the last Governor General of the East India Company”. Any student of Indian history knows that he was, in fact, the last Viceroy of the British Raj. The British East India Company ceased to exist after the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ was crushed in 1857 [in which Nepal played a not insignificant part].
However, these are minor points. Brig. Gen. Basnyat has a fine eye for geo-political and geo-strategic details, and his book “Anglo-Nepal War: A Military Review” should be interesting reading [Disclosure: the present writer has not yet read the book].
• Hillary “would have sighed” at Mount Everest Mess *
Last Saturday, Sir Edmund Hillary, who became the first to scale Mt. Everest in 1953 together with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, would have turned 100. On the occasion, the German external state TV channel “Deutsche Welle” (DW) held an exclusive interview with his son Peter on the great adventurer’s life and times.
He was asked pointedly how Sir Edmund would have felt looking at last season’s [terrible] picture of the daunting queue [‘traffic jam’] on the summit ridge of Everest. He replied that it was a disturbing picture [to put it most mildly], and there was no question about it: “He would have looked at it and just sighed: What on earth was going on?”
However, Peter Hillary also said that it was very inappropriate for some Westerners to say to Nepal: “You should close Mount Everest, no one should go there…we have to encourage…the Nepalese run their tourism better. That they deal with the pollution issues and the numbers of people just as you have in the European Alps.
Sir Edmund would have been horrified to learn of the latest Everest scam. “Republica” (July 22, 2019) has exposed how a powerful group of so-called “liaison officers” have pocketed millions of rupees and helped award summit certificates to fake climbers. These liaison officers have even been derelict in their duty by not being with the expeditions. The whole system is rotten to the core. But in the Nepali socio-economic-political system of “Ke Garni” and passing the buck, nothing will change, even if it stinks to high heaven.
The 64-year-old eldest son of Sir Hillary is himself an adventurer with more than 40 expeditions behind him. He has scaled Mt. Everest twice (in 1990 and 2003) and also accomplished the “Seven Summits”, the highest mountains of each continent. He is also active in his father’s foundation, the “Himalayan Trust”. Currently, he is toying with the idea of attempting the summit a third time, this time with his son Alexander – to make it the third generation of Hillarys to climb Mount Everest. It seems the ‘Everest gene’ is firmly installed in the family!
The writer can be reached at: [email protected]