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UN summit could be Trump’s shining moment. Or, he might ruin everything.

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Trump UN Summit

The enigma of President Donald Trump will hit the world stage today at the start of the 4-day United Nations summit. This could very well be the President’s biggest moment since taking over as leader of the free world. It may also prove to be a disaster. At this point, there’s no telling which way the ball will drop.

The best thing going for him is that events like these tend to be when he’s at his best. Unlike his Twitter persona or adversarial stance that he takes when addressing mainstream media, the president has always done well talking directly to “big wigs.” Even as a business man, he regularly worked directly with politicians and even heads of state. He has another advantage: his unpredictability. There may not be a whole lot of people in the room who like him, but most will want to get on his good side based upon his willingness to lash at publicly at those who cross him.

There’s a good chance that he may have the opposite effect on world leaders. If he overplays his hand with the wrong people, gets threatening when he should be diplomatic, or attempts to get diplomatic when he should be threatening, he could start new relationships with world leaders on the wrong foot.

There’s a ton on the table at this summit. Just in the last couple of weeks, the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate deal, and an unstable North Korea have been dominating world news. All will be discussed. All of those discussions have the opportunity to become contentious.

Perhaps the biggest question looming over this particular summit is the future of the United Nations itself. Candidate Trump was very critical of the worldwide body and expressed extreme displeasure in the way the organization is funded. The United States pays by far the most out of the 120 or so nations involved, yet seems to receive little to no direct benefit. The word that’s been floated around by White House insiders is “reform.”

Here’s what’s buzzing so far about the summit:

Perspectives

Donald Trump’s U.N. meeting an ‘America First’ forum | S.A. Miller, Washington Times

http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/sep/17/donald-trumps-un-meeting-an-america-first-forum/Mr. Trump will be pushing reforms to the U.N. and rethinking America’s massive contributions, brokering economic deals around the world and trying to inspire global resolve to confront North Korea, Iran, Islamic State and other threats, top aides say.

Trump’s message for the United Nations: Reform | Julia Manchester, The Hill

http://origin-nyi.thehill.com/homenews/administration/351077-trump-looks-to-set-the-tone-at-un?amp“The message he’s going to deliver in that speech is first he’s going to promote and advocate for the strength of democratic values. And he’s going to reinforce that it is those shared values that bind our alliances together and that have kept the world a stable place,” Tillerson said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

Trump heads to first UN summit amid uncertainty on North Korea, Iran, Paris climate deal | Sarah Westwood, Washington Examiner

http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/trump-heads-to-first-un-summit-amid-uncertainty-on-north-korea-iran-paris-climate-deal/article/2634709“At first glance, you’d think that this would be sort of a train wreck or a potential major confrontation,” said Stewart Patrick, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “He’s going into, in a sense, the belly of the beast in terms of globalism.”

Final Thoughts

If the president goes in and uses his natural skills to win over the body and forge stronger relationships with world leaders, this could be exactly what the United States needs in order to rein in the United Nation’s failing world agenda. If he goes off the reservation completely, it could be disastrous. We’ll eagerly wait for his Tuesday address.

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Foreign Affairs

NY Times invokes Martin Luther King Jr. to attack Israel

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NY Times invokes Martin Luther King Jr to attack Israel

When a nation the size of New Jersey is surrounded by enemies and is the subject of incessant condemnation from the United Nations, it’s natural to assume thoughtful people will take a complete look at its circumstances before deciding which side of a contentious debate to support. This is why many Americans still choose to support the nation of Israel despite mainstream media’s efforts to frame it as evil.

Unfortunately, the debate is so complex, most Americans form their perspectives based on very limited data. Passions are so strong on both sides that it often comes down to which side’s message is loudest in the ears of those deciding who to support. The Israel-Palestine debate has been ongoing since the tiny nation was first formed and ramped up greatly following the attacks on Israel in 1967 that resulted in necessary expansion.

Today, the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights are all considered “occupied” territories by a majority around the world, at least among those who are paying attention. Despite clear evidence that the very existence of Israel would be threatened if these lands were “returned” to the Palestinians, most of the world calls for the two-state solution as the path to peace.

On top of the disputed lands, the way that Israel maintains peace within its own lands is labeled as oppression against Palestinians living there. The core of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement’s message is that the Palestinian people are being persecuted. To support this premise, an activist at the NY Times is invoking Martin Luther King Jr and his opposition to the Vietnam War as the roadmap by which BDS activists should muster their own courage and build more support to fight the nation of Israel.

Time to Break the Silence on Palestine

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/19/opinion/sunday/martin-luther-king-palestine-israel.htmlReading King’s speech at Riverside more than 50 years later, I am left with little doubt that his teachings and message require us to speak out passionately against the human rights crisis in Israel-Palestine, despite the risks and despite the complexity of the issues. King argued, when speaking of Vietnam, that even “when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict,” we must not be mesmerized by uncertainty. “We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”

To be clear, King was opposed to a war that resulted in the deaths of 1,350,000 people, which is nearly the same amount of Arabs living in Israel currently. King was opposed to a war in which no Americans were attacked prior to us getting involved. Israel is attacked regularly from multiple groups in and out of the nation who support the Palestinian movement. King was opposed to a war that took focus and resources away from his cause.

As he said, “We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”

To be fair, the author of the NY Times article, Michelle Alexander, was using his anti-war speech to demonstrate the courage King displayed as inspiration for the courage she feels BDS supporters need today. Had she left it there, then there wouldn’t be much of a need to respond. However, she continued in the article to speculate King may not have been happy with Israel back then. Worse, she implied that he could have been a supporter of the BDS movement today.

This opinion is beyond questionable. King’s motivations for not wanting to outwardly support Israel’s actions following the Six Day War were for the sake of his movement, not based on personal feelings on the matter. It made sense to not take a side in a debate in which many of his supporters of African or Middle Eastern descent may have objected.

It is becoming increasing common in the BDS movement to point solely towards the actions of the Israeli government while ignoring the reasons for these actions. They often talk about homes being bulldozed, but they ignore the fact that punitive demolitions are a result of terrorist attacks. I am not in favor of these demolitions, but I would never hide the facts to support my claims. The BDS movement realizes calling out Israel for bulldozing Palestinian homes is most effective if the reasons are never mentioned.

As pro-BDS articles go, this one was strikingly coherent. This is a bigger problem than the unhinged hate articles we often see from BDS supporters. It’s easy to see how this one-sided portrayal in a publication as strong as the NY Times that invokes an icon like Martin Luther King Jr can garner support for the movement from those who would otherwise never consider it. The article is very careful to cut off cries of antisemitism and is written for rational thinkers rather than emotional feelers.

But therein lies the problem. It invokes King and his famous speech knowing full well few will actually read it. If they take the time to read or hear it, they’ll wonder what any of that has to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The NY Times is betting on the easy odds that nobody’s going to take the time.

None of the seven reasons King gives for opposing the Vietnam War could be applied to Israel. Invoking the speech and insinuating he would have been a BDS supporter is a disingenuous attempt to equate his righteous activism to the BDS movement itself.


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Culture and Religion

Rep. Ilhan Omar’s excuses attacking Israel by saying she attacks Saudi Arabia, too

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Rep Ilhan Omars excuses attacking Israel by saying she attacks Saudi Arabia too

New Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has been outspoken against the Israeli government for years. Some of her public condemnations including calling Israel evil and claiming they’ve “hypnotized the world.” But Israel is an ally to the United States and her role in the House of Representatives will put her position to affect change on our relationship.

Her excuse for attacking Israel is that she also attacks Saudi Arabia.

“I say the same things if not worse when it comes to the Saudi government,” she said. “I’ve called for boycotts of hajj, and boycotts of Saudi Arabia, because to me it is important when you see oppression taking place – when you see regression – when you see our values being attacked as humans, you must stand up, and it doesn’t matter who the inhabiters of that particular region might be.”

My Take

It wasn’t just Omar that is concerning. The narrative being formed by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour was equally discouraging. How she framed the relationship between AIPAC and the U.S. government was thinly veiled spite towards the Jewish group.

“There’s generally sort of a rite of passage for politicians in the United States, and that is to sort of profess sort of fealty or at least pay homage to AIPAC, the pro-Israel PAC that is very, very prominent,” she said.

I won’t even try to deconstruct that silly statement.

As our EIC pointed out, Omar’s perspectives are a real concern on the foreign relations front:

There is no room for bigotry of any kind in the House of Representatives. We need to watch closely as she toes the line between calling out the nation of Israel for what she perceives as offenses and actual antisemitism, which often follows.


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Foreign Affairs

Iran and the Taliban: A tactical alliance?

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Iran and the Taliban A tactical alliance

However, the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, the fear of a resurgent ISIS in Afghanistan, and water issues have prompted Tehran to ramp up its engagement with the Taliban. This tactical alliance will enable Iran to further expand its influence in Afghanistan.

Iran and the Taliban have long had their ups and downs. In 1998, the two sides nearly came to a direct clash when Taliban forces killed Iranian diplomats, though the incident ended without a major conflict. However, the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, the fear of a resurgent ISIS in Afghanistan, and water issues have prompted Tehran to ramp up its engagement with the Taliban. This tactical alliance will enable Iran to further expand its influence in Afghanistan.

Iran has had covert contacts with the Taliban, the most dangerous terror group in Afghanistan, for many years. But recently, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), went public with the relationship, claiming that contacts had been made with the aim of “curbing the security problems in Afghanistan.”

The announcement came as a surprise not because the public was unaware of Iran’s secret relations with the Taliban, but because Tehran has always tried to keep its ties to terror groups an “open secret” in an attempt to maintain plausible deniability. Why did Tehran decide to go public about the Taliban connection now?

A review of the relationship’s history may help to explain the mullahs’ thinking. Relations between Iran and the Taliban have long had their ups and downs. During the period of Taliban rule, Iran saw the group as a threat to its interests. The two sides almost came to a direct clash in September 1998, when Taliban forces kidnapped and killed nine Iranian diplomats and one journalist in the Iranian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) vowed revenge and prepared to launch an all-out attack. But the crisis ended without a major clash, perhaps due to the fear that Islamabad would retaliate in support of the Taliban or that Afghanistan might become a quagmire for Iranian forces similar to that experienced by the Soviet Union in 1979-89.

The 2001 US-led military operation that led to the collapse of Taliban rule prompted the Iranian leadership to reconsider its original calculation and recalibrate its approach. It welcomed high-level Taliban figures who escaped to Iran (e.g., Abdul Qayum Zakir and Mullah Naim Barich) and began extending support to Taliban fighters.

While the two sides are on different ends of the religious spectrum, Tehran views the Taliban as a useful point of leverage against the US. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a NATO force composed of American, British, Canadian, and other troops, was created by the UN in 2002 and tasked with training the fledgling Afghan army and protecting the government of Hamid Karzai and his successor, Ashraf Ghani. The Iranian regime viewed the ISAF with concern, as it feared the US might use Afghanistan as a base from which to launch a kinetic attack on Iran. The Taliban insurgency thus became viewed by Tehran as a tool with which to keep American forces preoccupied.

To assist in the Taliban’s fighting of the ISAF, Iran allowed the Afghan terror group to open an office in Tehran and invited its leaders to attend a two-day International Islamic Unity Conference held by the World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought in Tehran.

Iran’s support for the Taliban did not terminate even when President Barack Obama assured the mullahs that the military option was no longer official US policy towards Iran. Intelligence reports indicate that Tehran’s military and financial support for the Taliban has in fact escalated ever since. Afghan military officials have accused the Revolutionary Guards of providing military, financial, and logistical support to the terror group, to the extent that Tehran’s support enabled the Taliban to capture districts in western Afghanistan, including the provinces of Farah and Ghor, and the Taywara district. There are also reports indicating that Quds Force operatives had a “physical presence” in Ghor assisting Taliban fighters in their offensive against the central government.

Fighting ISAF was only one of the goals of the Quds Force in Afghanistan. Drug smuggling from Afghanistan to Iran has been a profitable business for the Quds Force, which is known for its extensive ties to drug cartels in South America. In 2012, the US Department of the Treasury (DOT) designated Brig. Gen. Gholamreza Baghbani, the chief of the Quds Force in the Zahedan office, a narcotics trafficker. The DOT document noted that in return for Iranian business, Afghan traffickers moved weapons to the Taliban.

Financial incentives aside, the emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan – especially in provinces that border Iran, such as Herat, Farah, and Nimruz – rattled the Iranian regime, prompting the leadership to ramp up its engagement with the Taliban. Unlike al Qaeda and the more malleable Taliban, the radical anti-Shiite ISIS poses a real threat to Iran’s interests in Afghanistan. Providing better training for the Taliban was thus not only a way to undermine the American-led ISAF, but a barrier to a new ISIS caliphate across the Afghan border.

Various reports indicate that the IRGC created a training camp in South Khorasan province (Khorasan Jonobi) to train Taliban fighters, providing them with weapons and explosives. The Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation (Komite Emdad Imam Khomeini) in the same province is said to be donating untold amounts of capital to the terror group in addition to calling for volunteers to fight alongside Taliban forces.

Some observers have directly linked improvements in the Taliban’s performance, and ISIS’s consequent inability to establish a strong foothold in Afghanistan, to Iranian support. Since mid-2017, Taliban and ISIS forces have regularly clashed in eastern Nangarhar province, with the Taliban easily defeating ISIS thanks to the military support it has received from the Quds Force. As one commentator put it, the “scale, quality, and length of training is unprecedented and marks not only a shift in the proxy war between the United States and Iran in Afghanistan but also a potential change in Iran’s ability and will to affect the outcome of the Afghan war.”

Other commentators have noted that Iran’s backing of the Taliban’s assaults on government forces were linked to water issues. Iran has been attempting to enable the Taliban to derail energy projects that are currently under construction, namely the Poze Lich Hydropower plant in Ghor, and the Bakhshabad and Salma dams in the neighboring province of Farah and Herat, respectively. The construction of these dams, which would massively boost local energy and water supplies, is not acceptable to Iran. On July 5, 2017, President Hassan Rouhani declared that Iran “cannot remain indifferent to the issue [water dams], which will damage our environment.” According to Rouhani, “construction of several dams in Afghanistan would affect Khorasan and Sistan-Baluchistan provinces,” and Tehran “is not going to stand idly by.”

It is worthy of note that the publicizing by Iran of its ties to the Taliban came days after reports appeared on talks between the US and the Taliban over proposals for a ceasefire in Afghanistan. Iran is sending a message to Washington and Kabul that if its concerns are not addressed, it can sabotage any attempt at a permanent peace in Afghanistan. Certainly, given Iran’s ties to the Taliban and the new regional arrangements (i.e., Trump’s decision to withdraw half of US forces from Afghanistan), Iran will be able to further expand its political, economic, and sectarian influence in that country.

Dr. Farhad Rezaei is a member of the  Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) in Washington, DC and the co-author of Iran, Israel, and the United States: The Politics of Counter-Proliferation Intelligence (Rowman & Littlefield, NY). @Farhadrezaeii


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