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Undermined Sovereignty in the Middle East

Photo Source Peter Mulligan | CC BY 2.0

The Israelis have violated Lebanese land, sea and airspace over 1,500 times this year. In the past week, Israeli jets flew over Northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley and the South.

On a daily basis in Southern Lebanon you hear, if you don’t see, Israeli drones buzzing away like huge mosquitoes in the sky. On occasion you might see Israeli jets flying towards Syria, or even hear Israeli jets pounding positions on the other side of the Anti-Lebanon mountain range, another violation of sovereignty.

All Lebanon can do is register its disapproval at the UN, and call on the USA to rein in its ally, a request the Lebanese state has made twice this year, following mock air raids in February, and every year since the Israelis were pushed out of the South in 2000. (Interestingly, according to a source at the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), there are no cumulative figures on Israeli violations, although they probably run into the tens of thousands).

Such calls for restraint fall on deaf ears, as the USA has no intention of slapping Israel over the wrist for such overflights and is actively trying to undermine UNIFIL, successfully working behind the scenes earlier this year to change the force’s commander to someone more amenable to its and Israel’s agenda.

One of UNIFIL’s roles, which has had its mandate renewed every six months since 1978, is to register the Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty. Locally however it is viewed in certain quarters as an occupation force, albeit a rather benign one. The reason: there is no UNIFIL equivalent on the Israeli side, land or sea, despite three land invasions by the Israelis (1978, 1982, 2006), and the daily overflights (the majority are drones).

Israel can act with impunity as Lebanon lacks political weight internationally, while any forceful response by the Lebanese Army or Hizbullah in defense of its sovereignty would result in Lebanon being sent back “to the middle ages”. Sovereignty be-damned. It is the same in Syria.

In September, an Israeli jet forced a Russian surveillance plane into the sights of Syrian air defense systems and was accidentally shot down. The Israelis blamed the Syrians, and there was minimal criticism internationally as to why Israel was violating Syrian airspace, yet again.

Israel is of course backed to the hilt by the USA and Europe, and can get away with what it likes; for Israel, the rules don’t apply. According to Foreign Policy Journal, there are some 79 ‘UN Security Council resolutions directly critical of Israel for violations of its Charter obligations and international law’.

It is not just the Israelis flouting sovereignty and international law in the Middle East. In North-eastern Syria, the US military, along with British special forces, is present, ostensibly to tackle the Islamic State. The same is true in Iraq.

Much further South, the USA and UK are backing, again to the hilt, the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in its war on Yemen. The legality of the war in Yemen, and the US-led coalition against the Islamic State are on shaky grounds – what mandate do they have, and what legitimate authorities requested military assistance? (What constitutes a legitimate government in Yemen is an open question).

In any case, there is an implicit dependence on US military and political support throughout much of the Middle East. In the Persian Gulf, US and British military bases dot the region, from Qatar and Bahrain to the UAE. As the ill-fated president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara put it in relation to aid dependency: ‘he who feeds you, controls you’.

Stretching Sankara’s statement to other forms of dependency: ‘he who arms you, controls you’, or ‘he who enters your country armed-to-the-teeth, controls you’. Indeed, how we can talk of meaningful sovereignty – the independence of nations – when, according to Tom’s Dispatch, US Special Operations forces were deployed to 149 countries in 2017 – around 75% of all nations – and to 133 countries this year?

Sovereignty is not just being undermined by boots on the ground, drones in the sky and ‘hard’ power. As dangerous to sovereignty, if perhaps not more so given its impact on nearly all people, friend and foe of the US alike, are financial regulations and sanctions.

The US Treasury has becomes the world’s financial policeman, fining companies for not abiding by anti-money laundering (AML) and countering the financing of terrorism(CTF) regulations, and unilaterally imposed sanctions.

Foreign countries and financial institutions have to jump when the US says so, if they do not want to be cut-off from the US financial sector. To be cutoff from the world’s largest economy and financial sector can well mean economic suicide: the US dollar accounts for 62.5% of global reserve currencies, and trillions of dollars in transactions flow through the USA everyday.

Such power is highly evident in the case of Iran, with the US to impose secondary sanctions on the country on 5 November, following President Trump’s decision in May to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – aka “the nuclear agreement” – inked in 2015.

Countries like Turkey, India and China are in a difficult position as they are exposed to the US financial sector but need Iranian oil and gas – how do you pay for commodities with a trading partner that is under sanctions?

The new sanctions aside, Iranian financial institutions could hardly deal with any European bank – in fact just a dozen – following the 2015 agreement, despite being legally allowed to do so. The primary reason was that Iran was not in compliance with the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) AML and CFT technical standards. The ‘most powerful organisation you have never heard of’, FATF’s mandate was heavily influenced by its core members, the G7 countries.

For Iran to be removed from FATF’s blacklist, a status it shares with just one other country, North Korea, Tehran has to fully implement FATF’s recommendations. One particular requirement is that Iran “should fully address” is “adequately criminalizing terrorist financing, including by removing the exemption for designated groups ‘attempting to end foreign occupation, colonialism and racism’”.

While the FATF does not mention the names of such exempted groups, it is clearly referring to Palestine’s Hamas and Lebanon’s Hizbullah, neither of which are designated by the UN as terrorist organizations (although they are by the US, Israel and some European states).

For Iran to meet this requirement it has to amend Article 154 of its constitution, which supports “the struggles of the oppressed for their rights against oppressors anywhere in the world”.

At a FATF press conference at the end of the October, the current president, Marshall Billingslea, who is also the US Department of the Treasury’s Assistant Secretary, was asked by Iran’s Press TV why this requirement was “such a sticking point for FATF. Does FATF not want to fight against colonialism and racism?”

Billingslea diplomatically answered that these are “terms” that the “international community discusses” and are outside the remit of FATF. “You would need to talk to individual nations as to how they interpret it. We have made it clear (Iran) has to criminalize terrorist financing without reservation,” said Billingslea. He also called on Iran to implement relevant UN Security Council resolutions “without delay”.

In a world where the concept of sovereignty is being so selectively applied, the rule book is in the hands of those with power, and those with powerful backers.

More articles by:

Paul Cochrane is a journalist living in Beirut.

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