');
The Unz Review: An Alternative Media Selection
A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
 
Email This Page to Someone

 Remember My Information



=>
Topics Filter?
9/11 Afghanistan Ahmadinejad Al-Qaeda American Media American Military Arab Spring Barack Obama Brazil BRICs Central Asia China CIA Donald Trump Economics EU Eurasia Fallujah Foreign Policy Hillary Clinton History Ideology Iran Iran Nuclear Agreement Iraq Iraq War Israel Libya Middle East Muammar Gaddafi Muqtada Al-Sadr NATO Neocons Neoliberalism New Silk Road Nicholas Sarkozy Oil Industry Osama Bin Laden Pakistan Russia Saudi Arabia Shias And Sunnis Syria Terrorism Turkey Ukraine Wikileaks 2004 Election 2008 Election 2012 Election 2016 Election Afghan Opium Africa AIPAC Algeria Anwar Al-Awlaki Argentina Arts/Letters Asia Assassinations Bahrain Balochistan Banking Industry Benghazi Bernard Henri-Levy Bilderberg Bill Clinton Bitcoin Black Sea Fleet Blackwater Bo Xilai Bolivia Boston Marathon Bombing Brexit Britain Burma Cambodia Catalonia Catholic Church Censorship Charlie Hebdo Che Guevara Chechens Chile China/America Conspiracy Theories Crimea Currency Speculation Davos Deep State Dollar Domestic Terrorism Dominique Strauss-Kahn Donald Rumsfeld Drone War Dubai Duterte Ecuador Edward Snowden Egypt Environment European Right Facebook Financial Bailout Florida France Free Trade Gaza Gaza Flotilla Gazprom George W. Bush Germany Global Warming Gold Government Surveillance Greece Greeks Hamas Hashemi Rafsanjani Hezbollah Hollywood Hong Kong Huawei Hugo Chavez IMF Immigration India Internet Iran Nuclear Program Iran Sanctions ISIS Islamism Islamophobia Israel Lobby Israel/Palestine Italy Jair Bolsonaro Japan John Bolton John McCain Julian Assange Kashmir Kazakhstan Khamenei Kosovo Kurds Kyrgyzstan Latin America Lebanon Lenin Lula Machiavellianism Malaysian Airlines MH17 Marco Rubio Margaret Thatcher Marine Le Pen Merkel Military Spending Mitt Romney Mohamed Morsi Mohammed Bin Salman Mossad Movies Musharraf Muslim Muslim Brotherhood Muslims Nationalism Natural Gas NED New Cold War North Korea NSA NSA Surveillance Obama Occupy Wall Street Oil Olympics Panama Papers Paraguay Paul Krugman Philippines Pinochet Poverty Prince Bandar Putin Qassem Soleimani Qatar Recep Tayyip Erdogan Refugee Crisis Rome Rub Saddam Hussein Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Silicon Valley Somalia South China Sea Spain Steve Bannon Strait Of Hormuz Taiwan Taliban Thailand Torture Uighurs Uzbekistan Venezuela Vietnam Vietnam War Vladimir Putin Wahhabis Wall Street War On Terror World Cup Xi Jinping Yemen
Nothing found
 TeasersPepe Escobar Blogview

Bookmark Toggle AllToCAdd to LibraryRemove from Library • BShow CommentNext New CommentNext New ReplyRead More
ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc. More... This Commenter This Thread Hide Thread Display All Comments
AgreeDisagreeThanksLOLTroll
These buttons register your public Agreement, Disagreement, Thanks, LOL, or Troll with the selected comment. They are ONLY available to recent, frequent commenters who have saved their Name+Email using the 'Remember My Information' checkbox, and may also ONLY be used three times during any eight hour period.
Ignore Commenter Follow Commenter
🔊 Listen RSS

The US targeted assassination, via drone strike, of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, apart from a torrent of crucial geopolitical ramifications, once again propels to center stage a quite inconvenient truth: the congenital incapacity of so-called US elites to even attempt to understand Shi’ism – thus 24/7 demonization, demeaning not only Shi’as by also Shi’a-led governments.

Washington had been deploying a Long War even before the concept was popularized by the Pentagon in 2001, immediately after 9/11: it’s a Long War against Iran. It started via the coup against the democratically elected government of Mosaddegh in 1953, replaced by the Shah’s dictatorship. The whole process was turbo-charged over 40 years ago when the Islamic Revolution smashed those good old Cold War days when the Shah reigned as the privileged American “gendarme of the (Persian) Gulf”.

Yet this extends far beyond geopolitics. There is absolutely no way whatsoever for anyone to be capable of grasping the complexities and popular appeal of Shi’ism without some serious academic research, complemented with visits to selected sacred sites across Southwest Asia: Najaf, Karbala, Mashhad, Qom and the Sayyida Zeinab shrine near Damascus. Personally, I have traveled this road of knowledge since the late 1990s – and I still remain just a humble student.

In the spirit of a first approach – to start an informed East-West debate on a crucial cultural issue totally sidelined in the West or drowned by tsunamis of propaganda, I initially asked three outstanding scholars for their first impressions.

They are: Prof. Mohammad Marandi, of the University of Tehran, expert on Orientalism; Arash Najaf-Zadeh, who writes under the nom de guerre Blake Archer Williams and who is an expert on Shi’a theology; and the extraordinary Princess Vittoria Alliata from Sicily, top Italian Islamologist and author, among others, of books such as the mesmerizing Harem – which details her travels across Arab lands.

Two weeks ago, I was a guest of Princess Vittoria at Villa Valguarnera in Sicily. We were immersed in a long, engrossing geopolitical discussion – of which one of the key themes was US-Iran – only a few hours before a drone strike at Baghdad airport killed the two foremost Shi’a fighters in the real war on terror against ISIS/Daesh and al-Qaeda/al-Nusra: Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi second-in-command Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Martyrdom vs. cultural relativism

Prof. Marandi offers a synthetic explanation: “The American irrational hatred of Shi’ism stems from its strong sense of resisting injustice – the story of Karbala and Imam Hussein and the Shi’a stress on protecting the oppressed, defending the oppressed and standing up against the oppressor. That is something that the United States and the hegemonic Western powers simply cannot tolerate.”

Blake Archer Williams sent me a reply that has now been published as a stand-alone piece. This passage, extending on the power of the sacred, clearly underlines the abyss separating the Shi’a notion of martyrdom from Western cultural relativism:

“There is nothing more glorious for a Moslem than attaining to martyrdom while fighting in the Way of God. General Qāsem Soleymānī fought for many years for the objective of waking the Iraqi people up to the point where they would want to take the helm of the destiny of their own country in their own hands. The vote of the Iraqi parliament showed that his objective has been achieved. His body was taken away from us, but his spirit was amplified a thousand fold, and his martyrdom has ensured that shards of its blessed light will be embedded in the hearts and minds of every Moslem man, woman, and child, inoculating them all from the zombie-cancer of the Satanic Novus Ordo Seclorum cultural relativists.”

[a point of contention: Novus Ordo Seclorum, or Saeculorum, means “new order of the ages”, and derives from a famous poem by Virgil which, in the Middle Ages, was regarded by Christians as a prophecy of the coming of Christ. To this point, Williams responded that “while that etymological sense of the phrase is true and still stands, the phrase was hijacked by one George Bush The Younger as representative of the New Worldly Order globalist cabal, and it is in this sense that is currently predominant.”]

Enslaved by Wahhabism

Princess Vittoria would rather frame the debate around the unquestioning American attitude towards Wahhabism: “I do not think all this has anything to do with hating Shi’ism or ignoring it. After all the Aga Khan is super embedded in US security, a sort of Dalai Lama of the Islamic world. I believe the satanic influence is from Wahhabism, and the Saudi family, who are much more heretic than the Shi’a to all Sunnis of the world, but have been the only contact to Islam for the US rulers. The Saudis have paid for most of the murders and wars by the Islamic Brothers first, then by the other forms of Salafism, all of them invented on a Wahhabi base.”

So, for Princess Vittoria, “I would not try so much to explain Shi’ism, but to explain Wahhabism and its devastating consequences: it has given birth to all extremisms as well as to revisionism, atheism, destruction of shrines and Sufi leaders all over the Islamic world. And of course Wahhabism is so close to Zionism. There are even researchers who have come up with documents which seem to prove that the House of Saud is a Dunmeh tribe of converted Jews expelled from Medina by the Prophet after they tried to murder him despite having signed a peace treaty.”

Princess Vittoria also emphasizes the fact that “ the Iranian revolution and Shi’a groups in the Middle East are today the only successful force of resistance to the US, and that causes them to be hated more than others. But only after all other Sunni opponents had been disposed of, killed, terrified (just think of Algeria, but there are dozens of other examples) or corrupted. This is of course not only my position, but that of most Islamologists today.”

The profane against the sacred

Knowing of Williams’ immense knowledge of Shi’a theology, and his expertise in Western philosophy, I prodded him to, literally, “go for the jugular”. And he delivered: “The question as to why American politicians are incapable of understanding Shi’a Islam (or Islam in general for that matter) is a simple one: unrestrained neoliberal capitalism engenders oligarchy, and the oligarchs “select” candidates that represent their interests before they are “elected” by the ignorant masses. Populist exceptions such as Trump occasionally slip through (or don’t, as in the case of Ross Perot, who pulled out under duress), but even Trump is then controlled by the oligarchs through threats of impeachment, etc. So the role of the politician in democracies seems not to be to try to understand anything but simply carry out the agenda of the elites who own them.”

 
Coming decade could see the US take on Russia, China and Iran over the New Silk Road connection
🔊 Listen RSS

The Raging Twenties started with a bang with the targeted assassination of Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani.

Yet a bigger bang awaits us throughout the decade: the myriad declinations of the New Great Game in Eurasia, which pits the US against Russia, China and Iran, the three major nodes of Eurasia integration.

Every game-changing act in geopolitics and geoeconomics in the coming decade will have to be analyzed in connection to this epic clash.

The Deep State and crucial sectors of the US ruling class are absolutely terrified that China is already outpacing the “indispensable nation” economically and that Russia has outpaced it militarily. The Pentagon officially designates the three Eurasian nodes as “threats.”

Hybrid War techniques – carrying inbuilt 24/7 demonization – will proliferate with the aim of containing China’s “threat,” Russian “aggression” and Iran’s “sponsorship of terrorism.” The myth of the “free market” will continue to drown under the imposition of a barrage of illegal sanctions, euphemistically defined as new trade “rules.”

Yet that will be hardly enough to derail the Russia-China strategic partnership. To unlock the deeper meaning of this partnership, we need to understand that Beijing defines it as rolling towards a “new era.” That implies strategic long-term planning – with the key date being 2049, the centennial of New China.

The horizon for the multiple projects of the Belt and Road Initiative – as in the China-driven New Silk Roads – is indeed the 2040s, when Beijing expects to have fully woven a new, multipolar paradigm of sovereign nations/partners across Eurasia and beyond, all connected by an interlocking maze of belts and roads.

The Russian project – Greater Eurasiasomewhat mirrors Belt & Road and will be integrated with it. Belt & Road, the Eurasia Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank are all converging towards the same vision.

Realpolitik

So this “new era”, as defined by the Chinese, relies heavily on close Russia-China coordination, in every sector. Made in China 2025 is encompassing a series of techno/scientific breakthroughs. At the same time, Russia has established itself as an unparalleled technological resource for weapons and systems that the Chinese still cannot match.

At the latest BRICS summit in Brasilia, President Xi Jinping told Vladimir Putin that “the current international situation with rising instability and uncertainty urge China and Russia to establish closer strategic coordination.” Putin’s response: “Under the current situation, the two sides should continue to maintain close strategic communication.”

Russia is showing China how the West respects realpolitik power in any form, and Beijing is finally starting to use theirs. The result is that after five centuries of Western domination – which, incidentally, led to the decline of the Ancient Silk Roads – the Heartland is back, with a bang, asserting its preeminence.

On a personal note, my travels these past two years, from West Asia to Central Asia, and my conversations these past two months with analysts in Nur-Sultan, Moscow and Italy, have allowed me to get deeper into the intricacies of what sharp minds define as the Double Helix. We are all aware of the immense challenges ahead – while barely managing to track the stunning re-emergence of the Heartland in real-time.

In soft power terms, the sterling role of Russian diplomacy will become even more paramount – backed up by a Ministry of Defense led by Sergei Shoigu, a Tuvan from Siberia, and an intel arm that is capable of constructive dialogue with everybody: India/Pakistan, North/South Korea, Iran/Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan.

This apparatus does smooth (complex) geopolitical issues over in a manner that still eludes Beijing.

In parallel, virtually the whole Asia-Pacific – from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean – now takes into full consideration Russia-China as a counter-force to US naval and financial overreach.

Stakes in Southwest Asia

The targeted assassination of Soleimani, for all its long-term fallout, is just one move in the Southwest Asia chessboard. What’s ultimately at stake is a macro geoeconomic prize: a land bridge from the Persian Gulf to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Last summer, an Iran-Iraq-Syria trilateral established that “the goal of negotiations is to activate the Iranian-Iraqi-Syria load and transport corridor as part of a wider plan for reviving the Silk Road.”

There could not be a more strategic connectivity corridor, capable of simultaneously interlinking with the International North-South Transportation Corridor; the Iran-Central Asia-China connection all the way to the Pacific; and projecting Latakia towards the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.

What’s on the horizon is, in fact, a sub-sect of Belt & Road in Southwest Asia. Iran is a key node of Belt & Road; China will be heavily involved in the rebuilding of Syria; and Beijing-Baghdad signed multiple deals and set up an Iraqi-Chinese Reconstruction Fund (income from 300,000 barrels of oil a day in exchange for Chinese credit for Chinese companies rebuilding Iraqi infrastructure).

A quick look at the map reveals the “secret” of the US refusing to pack up and leave Iraq, as demanded by the Iraqi Parliament and Prime Minister: to prevent the emergence of this corridor by any means necessary. Especially when we see that all the roads that China is building across Central Asia – I navigated many of them in November and December – ultimately link China with Iran.

The final objective: to unite Shanghai to the Eastern Mediterranean – overland, across the Heartland.

As much as Gwadar port in the Arabian Sea is an essential node of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and part of China’s multi-pronged “escape from Malacca” strategy, India also courted Iran to match Gwadar via the port of Chabahar in the Gulf of Oman.

So as much as Beijing wants to connect the Arabian Sea with Xinjiang, via the economic corridor, India wants to connect with Afghanistan and Central Asia via Iran.

Yet India’s investments in Chabahar may come to nothing, with New Delhi still mulling whether to become an active part of the US “Indo-Pacific” strategy, which would imply dropping Tehran.

The Russia-China-Iran joint naval exercise in late December, starting exactly from Chabahar, was a timely wake-up for New Delhi. India simply cannot afford to ignore Iran and end up losing its key connectivity node, Chabahar.

The immutable fact: everyone needs and wants Iran connectivity. For obvious reasons, since the Persian empire, this is the privileged hub for all Central Asian trade routes.

On top of it, Iran for China is a matter of national security. China is heavily invested in Iran’s energy industry. All bilateral trade will be settled in yuan or in a basket of currencies bypassing the US dollar.

US neocons, meanwhile, still dream of what the Cheney regime was aiming at in the past decade: regime change in Iran leading to the US dominating the Caspian Sea as a springboard to Central Asia, only one step away from Xinjiang and weaponization of anti-China sentiment. It could be seen as a New Silk Road in reverse to disrupt the Chinese vision.

Battle of the Ages

 
🔊 Listen RSS

It is most unlikely Trump will escalate at this point, and this could provide him with the opportunity to leave the Middle East except for the Gulf States. Trump wants to get out,” a U.S. intelligence source says.

President Donald Trump will de-escalate the crisis with Iran when he speaks to the nation at 11 a.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, a U.S. intelligence source has told me.

Last night Iran retaliated for the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani with missile strikes on two U.S. military bases in Iraq. So far there have been no casualties reported. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that the ballistic missile strikes launched from Iran completed Tehran’s military action.

It is now up to Trump to determine whether the crisis will continue.

A top U.S. intel source sent me this analysis in response to a detailed question:

“It is most unlikely Trump will escalate at this point, and this could provide him with the opportunity to leave the Middle East except for the Gulf States. Trump wants to get out. The fact that Israel would be hit next by Iran [as promised, among others, by the IRGC as well as Hezbollah’s secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah] will probably cause them to pull back, and not order Trump to bomb Iran itself.

“DEBKA-Mossad acknowledged that Iran’s offensive missiles cannot be defended against. Its secret is that it hugs the ground going underneath the radar screens.” [the source is referring to the Hoveizeh cruise missile, with a range of 1,350 km, already tested by Tehran.]

“What is amazing is that Iraq has allowed US troops into their country at all after seeing over a million of their people murdered by the US if we include the 500,000 dead children [during the 1990s, as acknowledged by Madeleine Albright]. The royals in the U. A. E. told me that this is because Iraq is more corrupt that Nigeria.

“The key question here is what happened to the Patriot Missile Defense for these bases who were on high alert assuming this is not similar to Trump’s missiles hitting empty buildings in Syria after the chemical false flag operation. I saw no report that any defense missile was working, which to me is very significant.”

Judd Deere, the deputy press secretary of the White House, confirmed on Tuesday night what I had learned earlier from another source. The White House said Trump, in a phone call, thanked Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani for “Qatar’s partnership with the United States”, and they discussed Iraq and Iran.

According to my source, who is very close to the Qatari royal family, Trump actually sent a message to Tehran via the emir. The message has two layers. Trump promised sanctions would be cancelled if there were no retaliation from Tehran (something that Trump simply wouldn’t have the means to assure, considering the opposition from Capitol Hill) ; and there would be de-escalation if Tehran came up with a “proportional” response.

Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif described the Iranian missile strikes as a “proportional response”.

That may explain why Trump did not go on TV on Tuesday night in the U.S. to announce total war – as much as neocons may have been wanting it.

Details are still sparse, but there’s ultra-high level, back room diplomacy going on especially between Iran and Russia, with China discreet, but on full alert.

There’s consensus among the Axis of Resistance that China has a major role to play, especially in the Levant, where Beijing is seen in some quarters as a possible future partner ultimately replacing U.S. hegemony.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has just been to Syria and Turkey this week. And according to Russian sources, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is making clear to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Russia’s stance that there should be no escalation.

 
🔊 Listen RSS

The bombshell facts were delivered by caretaker Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, during an extraordinary, historic parliamentary session in Baghdad on Sunday.

Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani had flown into Baghdad on a normal carrier flight, carrying a diplomatic passport. He had been sent by Tehran to deliver, in person, a reply to a message from Riyadh on de-escalation across the Middle East. Those negotiations had been requested by the Trump administration.

So Baghdad was officially mediating between Tehran and Riyadh, at the behest of Trump. And Soleimani was a messenger. Adil Abdul-Mahdi was supposed to meet Soleimani at 8:30 am, Baghdad time, last Friday. But a few hours before the appointed time, Soleimani died as the object of a targeted assassination at Baghdad airport.

Let that sink in – for the annals of 21st century diplomacy. Once again: it does not matter whether the assassination order was issued by President Trump, the US Deep State or the usual suspects – or when. After all, the Pentagon had Soleimani on its sights for a long time, but always refused to go for the final hit, fearing devastating consequences.

Now, the fact is that the United States government – on foreign soil, as a guest nation – has assassinated a diplomatic envoy who was on an official mission that had been requested by the United States government itself.

Baghdad will formally denounce this behavior to the United Nations. However, it would be idle to expect UN outrage about the US killing of a diplomatic envoy. International law was dead even before 2003’s Shock and Awe.

Mahdi Army is back

Under these circumstances, it’s no wonder the Iraqi Parliament approved a non-binding resolution asking the Iraqi government to expel foreign troops by cancelling a request for military assistance from the US.

Translation: Yankee go home.

Predictably, Yankee will refuse the demand. Trump: “If they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”

US troops already are set to remain in Syria illegally – to “take care of the oil.” Iraq, with its extraordinary energy reserves, is an even more serious case. Leaving Iraq means Trump, US neocons and the Deep State lose control, directly and indirectly, of the oil for good. And, most of all, lose the possibility of endless interfering against the Axis of Resistance – Iran-Iraq-Syria-Hezbollah.

Apart from the Kurds – bought and paid for – Iraqis all across the political spectrum are tuned in to public opinion: this occupation is over. That includes Muqtada al-Sadr, who reactivated the Mahdi Army and wants the US embassy shut down for good.

As I saw it live at the time, the Mahdi Army was the Pentagon’s nemesis, especially around 2003-04. The only reason the Mahdi Army were appeased was because Washington offered Sadr Saddam Hussein, the man who killed his father, for summary execution without trial. For all his political inconsistencies, Sadr is immensely popular in Iraq.

Soleimani pysop

Hezbollah’s secretary-general Sayyed Nasrallah, in a very detailed speech, goes to the jugular on the meaning of Soleimani’s assassination.

Nasrallah tells how the US identified the strategic role of Soleimani in every battlefield – Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran. He tells how Israel saw Soleimani as an “existential threat” but “dared not to kill him. They could have killed him in Syria, where his movements were public.”

So the decision to assassinate Soleimani in public, as Nasrallah reads it, was a psyop. And the “fair retribution” is “ending the American military presence in our region.” All US military personnel will be kept on their toes, watching their backs, full time. This has nothing to do with American citizens: “I’m not talking about picking on them, and picking on them is forbidden to us.”

With a single stroke, the assassination of Soleimani has managed to unite not only Iraqis but Iranians, and in fact the whole Axis of Resistance. On myriad levels, Soleimani could be described as the 21st century Persian Che Guevara: the Americans have made sure he’s metastasizing into the Muslim Resistance Che.

Oil war

No tsunami of pedestrian US mainstream media PR will be able to disguise a massive strategic blunder – not to mention yet another blatantly illegal targeted assassination.

Yet this might as well have been a purposeful blunder. Killing Soleimani does prove that Trump, the Deep State and the usual suspects all agree on the essentials: there can be no entente cordiale between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Divide and rule remains the norm.

Michael Hudson sheds light on what is in effect a protracted “democratic” oil war: “The assassination was intended to escalate America’s presence in Iraq to keep control of the region’s oil reserves, and to back Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi troops (Isis, Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Nusra and other divisions of what are actually America’s foreign legion) to support U.S. control of Near Eastern oil as a buttress of the US dollar. That remains the key to understanding this policy, and why it is in the process of escalating, not dying down.”

Neither Trump nor the Deep State could not fail to notice that Soleimani was the key strategic asset for Iraq to eventually assert control of its oil wealth, while progressively defeating the Wahhabi/Salafist/jihadi galaxy. So he had to go.

‘Nuclear option’

For all the rumble surrounding Iraqi commitment to expel US troops and the Iranian pledge to react to the Soleimani assassination at a time of its choosing, there’s no way to make the imperial masters listen without a financial hit.

Enter the world derivatives market, which every major player knows is a financial WMD.

The derivatives are used to drain a trillion dollars a year out of the market in manipulated profits. These profits, of course, are protected under the “too big to prosecute” doctrine.

It’s all obviously parasitic and illegal. The beauty is it can be turned into a nuclear option against the imperial masters.

I’ve written extensively about it. New York connections told me the columns all landed on Trump’s desk. Obviously he does not read anything – but the message was there, and also delivered in person.

This past Friday, two American, mid-range, traditional funds bit the dust because they were leveraging in derivatives linked to oil prices.

If Tehran ever decided to shut down the Strait of Hormuz – call it the nuclear option – that would trigger a world depression as trillions of dollars of derivatives imploded.

The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) counts about $600 billion in total derivatives. Not really. Swiss sources say there are at least 1.2 quadrillion with some placing it at 2.5 quadrillion. That would imply a derivatives market 28 times the world’s GDP.

On Hormuz, the shortage of 22% of the world oil supply simply could not be papered over. It would detonate a collapse and cause a market crash infinitely worse than 1933 Weimar Germany.

The Pentagon gamed every possible scenario of a war on Iran – and the results are grim. Sound generals – yes, there are some – know the US Navy would not be able to keep the Strait of Hormuz open: it would have to leave immediately or, as sitting ducks, face total annihilation.

 
Andrei Martyanov’s latest book provides unceasing evidence about the kind of lethality waiting for U.S. forces in a...
🔊 Listen RSS
ORDER IT NOW

Once in a blue moon an indispensable book comes out making a clear case for sanity in what is now a post-MAD world. That’s the responsibility carried by “The (Real) Revolution in Military Affairs,” by Andrei Martyanov (Clarity Press), arguably the most important book of 2019.

Martyanov is the total package — and he comes with extra special attributes as a top-flight Russian military analyst, born in Baku in those Back in the U.S.S.R. days, living and working in the U.S., and writing and blogging in English.

Right from the start, Martyanov wastes no time destroying not only Fukuyama’s and Huntington’s ravings but especially Graham Allison’s childish and meaningless Thucydides Trap argument — as if the power equation between the U.S. and China in the 21stcentury could be easily interpreted in parallel to Athens and Sparta slouching towards the Peloponnesian War over 2,400 years ago. What next? Xi Jinping as the new Genghis Khan?

(By the way, the best current essay on Thucydides is in Italian, by Luciano Canfora (“Tucidide: La Menzogna, La Colpa, L’Esilio”). No Trap. Martyanov visibly relishes defining the Trap as a “figment of the imagination” of people who “have a very vague understanding of real warfare in the 21st century.” No wonder Xi explicitly said the Trap does not exist.)

Martyanov had already detailed in his splendid, previous book, “Losing Military Supremacy: The Myopia of American Strategic Planning,” how “American lack of historic experience with continental warfare” ended up “planting the seeds of the ultimate destruction of the American military mythology of the 20thand 21stcenturies which is foundational to the American decline, due to hubris and detachment of reality.” Throughout the book, he unceasingly provides solid evidence about the kind of lethality waiting for U.S. forces in a possible, future war against real armies (not the Taliban or Saddam Hussein’s), air forces, air defenses and naval power.

Do the Math

One of the key takeaways is the failure of U.S. mathematical models: and readers of the book do need to digest quite a few mathematical equations. The key point is that this failure led the U.S. “on a continuous downward spiral of diminishing military capabilities against the nation [Russia] she thought she defeated in the Cold War.”

In the U.S., Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) was introduced by the late Andrew Marshall, a.k.a. Yoda, the former head of Net Assessment at the Pentagon and the de facto inventor of the “pivot to Asia” concept. Yet Martyanov tells us that RMA actually started as MTR (Military-Technological Revolution), introduced by Soviet military theoreticians back in the 1970s.

One of the staples of RMA concerns nations capable of producing land-attack cruise missiles, a.k.a. TLAMs. As it stands, only the U.S., Russia, China and France can do it. And there are only two global systems providing satellite guidance to cruise missiles: the American GPS and the Russian GLONASS. Neither China’s BeiDou nor the European Galileo qualify – yet – as global GPS systems.

Then there’s Net-Centric Warfare (NCW). The term itself was coined by the late Admiral Arthur Cebrowski in 1998 in an article he co-wrote with John Garstka’s titled, “Network-Centric Warfare – Its Origin and Future.”

Deploying his mathematical equations, Martyanov soon tells us that “the era of subsonic anti-shipping missiles is over.” NATO, that brain-dead organism (copyright Emmanuel Macron) now has to face the supersonic Russian P-800 Onyx and the Kalibr-class M54 in a “highly hostile Electronic Warfare environment.” Every developed modern military today applies Net-Centric Warfare (NCW), developed by the Pentagon in the 1990s.

Martyanov mentions in his new book something that I learned on my visit to Donbass in March 2015: how NCW principles, “based on Russia’s C4ISR capabilities made available by the Russian military to numerically inferior armed forces of the Donbass Republics (LDNR), were used to devastating effect both at the battles of Ilovaisk and Debaltsevo, when attacking the cumbersome Soviet-era Ukrainian Armed Forces military.”

No Escape From the Kinzhal

Martyanov provides ample information on Russia’s latest missile – the hypersonic Mach-10 aero-ballistic Kinzhal, recently tested in the Arctic.

Crucially, as he explains, “no existing anti-missile defense in the U.S. Navy is capable of shooting [it] down even in the case of the detection of this missile.” Kinzhal has a range of 2,000 km, which leaves its carriers, MiG-31K and TU-22M3M, “invulnerable to the only defense a U.S. Carrier Battle Group, a main pillar of U.S. naval power, can mount – carrier fighter aircraft.” These fighters simply don’t have the range.

The Kinzhal was one of the weapons announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s game-changing March 1, 2018 speech at the Federal Assembly. That’s the day, Martyanov stresses, when the real RMA arrived, and “changed completely the face of peer-peer warfare, competition and global power balance dramatically.”

Top Pentagon officials such as General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, have admitted on the record there are “no existing countermeasures” against, for instance, the hypersonic, Mach 27 glide vehicle Avangard (which renders anti-ballistic missile systems useless), telling the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee the only way out would be “a nuclear deterrent.” There are also no existing counter-measures against anti-shipping missiles such as the Zircon and Kinzhal.

Any military analyst knows very well how the Kinzhal destroyed a land target the size of a Toyota Corolla in Syria after being launched 1,000 km away in adverse weather conditions. The corollary is the stuff of NATO nightmares: NATO’s command and control installations in Europe are de facto indefensible.

Martyanov gets straight to the point: “The introduction of hypersonic weapons surely pours some serious cold water on the American obsession with securing the North American continent from retaliatory strikes.”

Martyanov is thus unforgiving on U.S. policymakers who “lack the necessary tool-kit for grasping the unfolding geostrategic reality in which the real revolution in military affairs … had dramatically downgraded the always inflated American military capabilities and continues to redefine U.S. geopolitical status away from its self-declared hegemony.”

 
This journey into the past also reaches the heart of 21st century China’s New Silk Roads strategy
🔊 Listen RSS

At the start of the Tang dynasty, in the early 7th century, a young wandering monk embarked on a 16-year long voyage from the imperial capital Chang’an (today’s Xian) to India to collect Buddhist manuscripts. At the time Chang’an was six times bigger than Rome at its height, with a population of over one million – the epicenter of Asian civilization.

History ended up converting Xuanzang into a legend and a national hero in China – although in the West he would never reach Marco Polo levels of popularity.

Xuanzang had embarked on a quest that still resonates today. He wanted to know whether all men – or just an enlightened few – could attain Buddhahood. There was only one way to find out: ride all the way to India and bring back Sanskrit texts to China, especially from the Yogacara school of Buddhism, which professed that the outside world did not exist: it was merely a projection of one’s consciousness.

On his epic journey, Xuanzang went through hell and high water: sandy storms in the Taklamakan desert (“You can get in but you never get out”), avalanches in the Tian Shan mountains, pirates in the Ganges. His travels on the ancient Silk Road are mesmerizing, particularly in the years 629 and 630 as he hit northern Silk Road oases such as the kingdom of Hami.

It was at these oases that Xuanzang would reboot his small caravan of camels and horses and interact with local kings, influential merchants and serial warriors. He was already on his way to becoming the most famous pilgrim ever on the oldest trade route in the world.

Sino-Turkic meeting of minds

During my own trip, mixing ancient and new Silk Roads, I crossed Kyrgyzstan from south to north, from the desolate Tajik-Kyrgyz border on the Pamir highway – which looked like a scene from Tarkovsky’s Stalker – all the way to the crossroads of Sary-Tash, with a detour via a made by China road to examine the Kyrgyz-China border at Irkeshtam; then all the way to Osh, the getaway to the Ferghana valley via the mind-bending Taldyk pass; bordering Lake Toktogul, facing myriad other snowed-over passes; and up to the final dash towards the capital Bishkek.

What I really wanted to reach was the pasturage – at this time of the year far from verdant – by Lake Issyk-Kul, where Xuanzang lived an extraordinary historical moment as he met nothing less than the immense tented court of the great khan of the Western Turks.

It was thanks to the king of Turfan – another Silk Road oasis, not far from the current capital of Xinjiang, Urumqi – that Xuanzang was given 24 royal letters to be shown to twenty-four different kingdoms on his way, finally leading to the great khan of the Western Turks. The king of Turfan was in fact a vassal of the great khan, and he was asking for protection for his Chinese friend, invoking a medieval code of honor that applied equally to Europe and Asia.

The empire of the Western Turks at the time extended from the Altai mountains – today in Russia – to territory that’s now part of Afghanistan and Pakistan. To reach the great khan, Xuanzang went through frozen hell. He described mountains of ice that rose up to the sky and ice peaks tumbling down with a mighty roar. It took him one week just to cross the Bedal pass (4,284 meters high) in what was then Chinese Turkestan. The Western Turks used this pass to connect with the Tarim basin. Farther down the road, Xuanzang would still have to face the Hindu Kush and the Pamirsś

Xuanzang and his ragged mini-caravan finally arrived at the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul (“Warm Lake”), an inland sea that never freezes, and the second-largest in the world after the Titicaca in Bolivia. That happened to be the winter headquarters of the great khan, while his summer capital remained Tashkent.

Southern shore of Lake Issyk-kul. Photo: Asia Times / Pepe Escobar
Southern shore of Lake Issyk-kul. Photo: Asia Times / Pepe Escobar

I was hosted by a lovely young mother and her baby at a yurt by Lake Issyk-Kul. Xuanzang’s description of the lake, which I got from a 1969 Oriental Books reprint of the original 1884 London version of Si-yu-Ki; Buddhist records of the Western World, by Xuanzang, translated by S. Beal, could have been written today. Except for the dragons and monsters, of course:

A yurt by Lake Issyk-Kul. The design at the top is featured in the Kyrgyz national flag. Photo: Asia Times / Pepe Escobar
A yurt by Lake Issyk-Kul. The design at the top is featured in the Kyrgyz national flag. Photo: Asia Times / Pepe Escobar

“On all sides it is enclosed by mountains, and various streams empty themselves into it and are lost. The color of the water is a bluish-black, its taste is bitter and salt. The waves of this lake roll along tumultuously as they expend themselves. Dragons and fish inhabit it together. At certain occasions scaly monsters rise to the surface, on which travelers passing by put up their prayers of good fortune.”

Meet the balbals

So in the year 630 Xuanzang finally met the great khan of the Western Turks, at the northwest shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, in Tokmak.

Tokmak happens to be very close to the Burana tower, the only major Silk Road site still standing in Kyrgyzstan. We are in the Chuy valley, which was a very busy side branch of the Northern Silk Road, at the crossroads of the Sogdian, Turkic and Chinese civilizations.

Burana Tower, the only Silk Road landmark left standing in Kyrgizstan. Photo: Asia Times / Pepe Escobar
Burana Tower, the only Silk Road landmark left standing in Kyrgizstan. Photo: Asia Times / Pepe Escobar

All that remains of what in the 11th century was a sophisticated city called Balasagun – which the Mongols named Gobolik when they rammed through it in 1218 – is the tower, actually a half minaret. Behind the tower we find the cutest stone creatures in living memory: the balbal, 1,500 year-old stone grave markers.

A balbal, 1,500-year-old stone grave marker near the Burana tower. Photo: Asia Times / Pepe Escobar
A balbal, 1,500-year-old stone grave marker near the Burana tower. Photo: Asia Times / Pepe Escobar

The meeting of Xuanzang and the great khan was a major success. He described “riders mounted on camels and horses, dressed in furs and fine woolen cloth and carrying long lances, banners and straight bows.” Much like the warriors one sees at the extraordinary exhibits at the National Museum of Kazakhstan in Nur-Sultan. The multitude, wrote Xuanzang, “stretched so far that the eye could not tell where it ended.”

This happened to be the last description ever of the great nomad confederation led by the great khan, which collapsed to internal strife still in the early 7th century.

There was also a very important matter to clarify: horses. And that led me to the traditional Sunday animal market at Karakol, not far from the southeast corner of the lake. There I saw multiple descendants of the legendary Przhewalsky horses.

Descendant of the Przhewalsky horse at the market in Karakol. Photo: Asia Times / Pepe Escobar
Descendant of the Przhewalsky horse at the market in Karakol. Photo: Asia Times / Pepe Escobar

Przhewalsky, after whom the diminutive breed of Central Asian wild horses is named, was the top scientific explorer of Mongolia, the Gobi, Tibet and Xinjiang between 1870 and 1885 – and he died in a hospital near Karakol after contracting typhus. He had led a caravan crossing the Taklamakan – an almost impossible feat. A lovely Soviet-era museum near Karakol pays him due tribute.

Bust of Przhewalsky at the Soviet-era memorial near Karakol. Photo: Asia Times / Pepe Escobar
Bust of Przhewalsky at the Soviet-era memorial near Karakol. Photo: Asia Times / Pepe Escobar
 
• Category: Economics, Foreign Policy • Tags: Central Asia, China, New Silk Road 
🔊 Listen RSS

This is arguably the ultimate road trip on earth. Marco Polo did it. All the legendary Silk Road explorers did it. Traveling the Pamir Highway back to back, as a harsh winter approaches, able to appreciate it in full, in silence and solitude, offers not only a historical plunge into the intricacies of the ancient Silk Road but a glimpse of what the future may bring in the form of the New Silk Roads.

This is a trip steeped in magic ancient history. Tajiks trace their roots back to tribes of Sogdians, Bactrians and Parthians. Indo-Iranians lived in Bactria (“a country of a thousand towns”) and Sogdiana from the 6-7th centuries BC to the 8th century AD Tajiks make up 80% of the republic’s population, very proud of their Persian cultural heritage, and kin to Tajik-speaking peoples in northern Afghanistan and the region around Tashkurgan in Xinjiang.

Proto-Tajiks and beyond were always at the fringe of countless empires – from the Achaemenids, Kushan and Sogdians to the Greco-Bactrians, the Bukhara emirate and even the USSR. Today many Tajiks live in neighboring Uzbekistan – which is now experiencing an economic boom. Due to Stalin’s demented border designs, fabled Bukhara and Samarkand – quintessential Tajik cities – have become “Uzbek.”

Bactria’s territory included what are today northern Afghanistan, southern Tajikistan and southern Uzbekistan. The capital was fabled Balkh, as named by the Greeks, carrying the informal title of “mother of all cities.”

Sogdiana was named by the Greeks and Romans as Transoxiana: between the rivers, the Amu-Darya and the Syr-Darya. Sogdians practiced Zoroastrianism and lived by arable agriculture based on artificial irrigation.

Western Pamirs: Road upgrade by China, Pyanj River, Tajikistan to the left, Afghanistan to the right, Hindu Kush in the background. Photo: Pepe Escobar
Western Pamirs: Road upgrade by China, Pyanj River, Tajikistan to the left, Afghanistan to the right, Hindu Kush in the background. Photo: Pepe Escobar

We all remember that Alexander the Great invaded Central Asia in 329 B.C. After he conquered Kabul, he marched north and crossed the Amu-Darya. Two years later he defeated the Sogdians. Among the captured prisoners was a Bactrian nobleman, Oxyartes, and his family.

Alexander married Oxyartes’s daughter, the ravishing Roxanne, the most beautiful woman in Central Asia. Then he founded the city of Alexandria Eskhata (“The Farthest”) which is today’s Kojand, in northern Tajikistan. In Sogdiana and Bactria, he built as many as 12 Alexandrias, including Aryan Alexandria (today’s Herat, in Afghanistan) and Marghian Alexandria (today’s Mary, formerly Merv, in Turkmenistan).

By the middle of the 6th century, all these lands had been divided among the Turkic Kaghans, the Sassanian Empire and a coalition of Indian kings. What always remained unchanged was the emphasis on agriculture, town planning, crafts, trade, blacksmithing, pottery, manufacture of copper and mining.

The caravan route across the Pamirs – from Badakshan to Tashkurgan – is the stuff of legend in the West. Marco Polo described it as “the highest place in the world.” Indeed: the Pamirs were known by the Persians as Bam-i-Dunya (translated, appropriately, as “roof of the world”).

The highest peaks in the world may be in the Himalayas. But the Pamirs are something unique: the top orographic crux in Asia from which all the highest mountain ranges in the world radiate: the Hindu Kush to the northwest, the Tian Shan to the northeast, and the Karakoram and the Himalayas to the southeast.

Ultimate imperial crossroads

The Pamirs are the southern boundary of Central Asia. And let’s cut to the chase, the most fascinating region in the whole of Eurasia: as wild as it gets, crammed with breathtaking peaks, snow-capped spires, rivers ragged with crevasses, huge glaciers – a larger-than-life spectacle of white and blue with overtones of stony gray.

This is also the quintessential crossroad of empires – including the fabled Russo-British 19th century Great Game. No wonder: picture a high crossroads between Xinjiang, the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan and Chitral in Pakistan. Pamir may mean a “high rolling valley.” But the bare Eastern Pamirs might as well be on the moon – traversed less by humans than curly-horned Marco Polo sheep, ibex and yaks.

Countless trade caravans, military units, missionaries and religious pilgrims also made the Pamir Silk Road known as “road of Ideologies.” British explorers like Francis Younghusband and George Curzon hit the upper Oxus and mapped high passes into British India. Russian explorers such as Kostenko and Fedchenko tracked the Alai and the great peaks of the northern Pamir. The first Russian expedition arrived in the Pamirs in 1866, led by Fedchenko, who discovered and lent his name to an immense glacier, one of the largest in the world. Trekking toward it is impossible as winter approaches.

And then there were the legendary Silk Road explorers Sven Hedin (in 1894-5) and Aurel Stein (1915), who explored its historical heritage.

Chinese container cargo trucks negotiate the Western Pamirs. Photo: Pepe Escobar
Chinese container cargo trucks negotiate the Western Pamirs. Photo: Pepe Escobar

The Pamir Highway version of the Silk Road was actually built by the Soviet Union between 1934 and 1940, predictably following ancient caravan tracks. The name of the region remains Soviet: the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO). To travel the highway, one needs a GBAO permit.

For no less than 2,000 years – from 500 B.C. to the early 16th century – camel caravans carried not only silk from East to West, but goods made of bronze, porcelain, wool and cobalt, also from West to East. There are no fewer than four different branches of the Silk Road in Tajikistan. The ancient Silk Roads were an apotheosis of connectivity: ideas, technology, art, religion, mutual cultural enrichment. The Chinese, with a keen historical eye, not by accident identified “common legacy of mankind” as the conceptual/philosophical base for the Chinese-led New Silk Roads, or Belt and Road Initiative.

Afghan village by the Pyanj River, Hindu Kush in the background. Photo: Pepe Escobar
Afghan village by the Pyanj River, Hindu Kush in the background. Photo: Pepe Escobar

Have China upgrade, will travel

In villages in Gorno-Badakhshan, stretched out along stunning river valleys, life for centuries has been about irrigation farming and seasonal-pasture cattle farming. As we progress toward the barren Eastern Pamirs, the story mutates into an epic: how mountain people eventually adapted to living at altitudes as high as 4,500 meters.

In the Western Pamirs, the current road upgrade was by – who else? – China. The quality is equivalent to the northern Karakoram Highway. Chinese building companies are slowly working their way towards the Eastern Pamirs – but repaving the whole highway may take years.

The Chinese are coming: upgrading the highway in the Western Pamirs. Photo: Pepe Escobar
The Chinese are coming: upgrading the highway in the Western Pamirs. Photo: Pepe Escobar
The 3rd century BC Yamchun fortress, known as ‘The Castle of the Fire Worshippers.’ Photo: Pepe Escobar
The 3rd century BC Yamchun fortress, known as ‘The Castle of the Fire Worshippers.’ Photo: Pepe Escobar

The Pyanj river draws a sort of huge arc around the border of Badakhshan in Afghanistan. We see absolutely amazing villages perched on the hills across the river, including some nice houses and owners with an SUV instead of a donkey or a bike. Now there are quite a few bridges over the Pyanj, financed by the Aga Khan foundation, instead of previous planks jammed with stones suspended above vertiginous cliffs.

 
A fuel tax hike set the country ablaze and triggered a social backlash
🔊 Listen RSS

On November 15, a wave of protests engulfed over 100 Iranian cities as the government resorted to an extremely unpopular measure: a fuel tax hike of as much as 300%, without a semblance of a PR campaign to explain the reasons.

Iranians, after all, have reflexively condemned subsidy removals for years now – especially related to cheap gasoline. If you are unemployed or underemployed in Iran, especially in big cities and towns, Plan A is always to pursue a second career as a taxi driver.

Protests started as overwhelmingly peaceful. But in some cases, especially in Tehran, Shiraz, Sirjan and Shahriar, a suburb of Tehran, they quickly degenerated into weaponized riots – complete with vandalizing public property, attacks on the police and torching of at least 700 bank outlets. Much like the confrontations in Hong Kong since June.

President Rouhani, aware of the social backlash, tactfully insisted that unarmed and innocent civilians arrested during the protests should be released. There are no conclusive figures, but Iranian diplomats admit, off the record, that as many as 7,000 people may have been arrested. Tehran’s judiciary system denies it.

According to Iran’s Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, as many as 200,000 people took part in the protests nationwide. According to the Intelligence Ministry, 79 people were arrested in connection with the riots only in Khuzestan province – including three teams, supported by “a Persian Gulf state,” which supposedly coordinated attacks on government centers and security/police forces.

The Intelligence Ministry said it had arrested eight “CIA operatives,” accused of being instrumental in inciting the riots.

Now compare it with the official position by the IRGC. The chief commander of the IRGC, Major General Hossein Salami, stressed riots were conducted by “thugs” linked to the US-supported Mujahedin-e Khalq (MKO), which has less than zero support inside Iran, and with added interference by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Salami also framed the riots as directly linked to “psychological pressure” from the Trump administration’s relentless “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran. He directly connected the protests degenerating into riots in Iran with foreign interference in protests in Lebanon and Iraq.

Elijah Magnier has shown how Moqtada al-Sadr denied responsibility for the burning down of the Iranian consulate in Najaf – which was set on fire three times in November during protests in southern Iraq.

Tehran, via government spokesman Ali Rabiei, is adamant: “According to our information, the attack on the consulate was not perpetrated by the Iraqi people, it was an organized attack.”

Predictably, the American narrative framed Lebanon and Iraq – where protests were overwhelmingly against local government corruption and incompetence, high unemployment, and abysmal living standards – as a region-wide insurgency against Iranian power.

Soleimani for President?

Analyst Sharmine Narwani, based on the latest serious polls in Iran, completely debunked the American narrative.

It’s a complex picture. Fifty-five percent of Iranians do blame government corruption and mismanagement for the dire state of the economy, while 38% blame the illegal US sanctions. At the same time, 70% of Iranians favor national self-sufficiency – which is what Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has been emphasizing – instead of more foreign trade.

On sanctions, no less than 83% agree they exerted a serious impact on their lives. Mostly because of sanctions, according to World Bank figures, Iranian GDP per capita has shrunk to roughly $6,000.

The bad news for the Rouhani administration is that 58% of Iranians blame his team for corruption and mismanagement – and they are essentially correct. Team Rouhani’s promises of a better life after the JCPOA obviously did not materialize. In the short term, the political winners are bound to be the principlists – which insist there’s no possible entente cordiale with Washington at any level.

The polls also reveal, significantly, massive popular support for Tehran’s foreign and military policy – especially on Syria and Iraq. The most popular leaders in Iran are legendary Quds Force commander Gen. Soleimani (a whopping 82%), followed by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (67%) and the head of the Judiciary Ebrahim Raisi (64%).

The key takeaway is that at least half and on some issues two-thirds of Iran’s popular opinion essentially support the government in Tehran – not as much economically but certainly in political terms. As Narwani summarizes it, “so far Iranians have chosen security and stability over upheaval every time.”

‘Counter-pressure’

What’s certain is that Tehran won’t deviate from a strategy that may be defined as “maximum counter-pressure” – on multiple fronts. Iranian banks have been cut off from SWIFT by the US since 2018. So efforts are intensifying to link Iran’s SEPAM system with the Russian SPFS and the Chinese CIPS – alternative interbank paying systems.

Tehran continues to sell oil – as Persian Gulf traders have repeatedly confirmed to me since last summer. Digital tracking agency Tankertrackers.com concurs. The top two destinations are China and Syria. Volumes hover around 700,000 barrels a day. Beijing has solemnly ignored every sanction threat from Washington regarding oil trading with Iran.

Khamenei, earlier this month, was adamant: “The US policy of maximum pressure has failed. The Americans presumed that they can force Iran to make concessions and bring it to its knees by focusing on maximum pressure, especially in the area of economy, but they have troubled themselves.”

In fact “maximum counter-pressure” is reaching a whole new level.

Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi confirmed that Iran will hold joint naval drills with Russia and China in the Indian Ocean in late December.

That came out of quite a significant meeting in Tehran, between Khanzadi and the deputy chief of the Chinese Joint Staff Department, Major General Shao Yuanming.

So welcome to Maritime Security Belt. In effect from December 27th. Smack on the Indian Ocean – the alleged privileged territory of Washington’s Indo-Pacific policy. And uniting the three key nodes of Eurasia integration: Russia, China and Iran.

Khanzadi said that, “strategic goals have been defined at the level administrations, and at the level of armed forces, issues have been defined in the form of joint efforts.” General Yuanming praised Iran’s Navy as “an international and strategic force.”

But geopolitically, this packs a way more significant game-changing punch. Russia may have conducted naval joint drills with Iran on the Caspian Sea. But a complex drill, including China, in the Indian Ocean, is a whole new ball game.

Yuanming put it in a way that every student of Mahan, Spykman and Brzezinski easily understands: “Seas, which are used as a platform for conducting global commerce, cannot be exclusively beneficial to certain powers.” So start paying attention to Russia, China and Iran being quite active not only across the Heartland but also across the Rimland.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: China, Iran, Iraq, Russia 
Central Asia, betweem China and Europe, is bustling
🔊 Listen RSS

We are cruising on a pristine, 380 km-long four-lane superhighway from Almaty to Khorgos – finished in 2016 for $1.25 billion, 85% of the cost covered by a World Bank loan. And then, suddenly, riding parallel to us, there’s the real superstar of New Silk Road connectivity.

Meet Yuxinou, the container cargo train plying back and forth along the 11,000 km-long railway corridor connecting Chongqin in Sichuan province via Xinjiang and Kazakhstan to Russia, Belarus, Poland and finally Duisburg in the Ruhr valley. And all that in a mere 13 days.

Along the way, the Yuxinou stops in, among other places, Almaty, Bishkek, Tashkent, Tehran, Istanbul, Moscow and Rotterdam: a who’s who of Eurasian cities. It carries laptops, BMWs, spare parts, clothes, machinery, international post packages, chemical products, medicine and medical instruments – all manner of goods, made in China and made in Europe. And all that for only 20% of air freight cost.

This operation platform is called Yuxinou (Chongqing) Logistics Co., Ltd., a joint venture among the railways of China, Russia, Kazakhstan and Germany and the Chongqin municipal government, which is quite proud of its “seamless integration of multinational railway logistics” – complete with a fast custom clearance procedure called “single declaration and inspection on entire journey.”

The key Yuxinou crossroads is the intersection between Alashankou, on the Chinese side of the Kasakh border, and Khorgos, a special economic zone in Kazakhstan. The whole project may be in its infancy. After all, the Belt and Road Initiative is still, according to Beijing’s detailed timetable, in the planning stage.

So Khorgos may still be far from metastasizing into the new Dubai, as the hype claimed a few years ago. But watching Khorgos in action is a fascinating experience, unparalleled in its usefulness for gauging Belt & Road’s potential. As much as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the northern part of which I traveled a year ago, this is one of the jewels in Belt & Road’s crown.

Hitting the malls

There are actually three places to take care of border-crossing business at Khorgos. I arrived, via the superhighway, at the exclusive crossing for container trucks. Then I visited the border crossing used by Kazakhs and Central Asians from everywhere, leading to a collection of duty-free mega shopping malls officially called the International Center for Boundary Cooperation (ICBC). Then there’s the train station in Altynkol, where Yoxinou stops as do the Urumqi-Almaty cargo/passenger trains. The actual SEZ – many buildings still under construction – is in the periphery of Khorgos.

The timetable at Altynkol station, featuring the Almaty-Urumqi trains. Photo: Pepe Escobar / Asia Times
The timetable at Altynkol station, featuring the Almaty-Urumqi trains. Photo: Pepe Escobar / Asia Times

The ICBC – 5.3 square kilometers housing five multi-story shopping malls with over 2,000 shops – is a sort of neutral no man’s land. If you’re Kazakh or Chinese, no visa is needed. But people from all over Central Asia also come – by bus, eager to take advantage of unlimited Made in China bargains.

The bus stop at Khorgos, before crossing to the Chinese mega mall. Photo: Pepe Escobar
The bus stop at Khorgos, before crossing to the Chinese mega mall. Photo: Pepe Escobar
The brand new Kazakh customs station. Photo: Pepe Escobar
The brand new Kazakh customs station. Photo: Pepe Escobar

The procedure is quite straightforward. Customers arrive usually in the early morning at a huge bus parking lot. They walk a short distance toward the very modern Kazakh customs building (on the day I visited, because of the bitter cold, it was virtually empty). Then they take a shuttle bus to the Chinese border, cross it with little or no bureaucracy (although the Central Asians, other than Kazakhs, do need visas), and hit the malls.

Porter carrying the loot from shoppers at the Chinese megamall. Photo: Pepe Escobar
Porter carrying the loot from shoppers at the Chinese megamall. Photo: Pepe Escobar

They come back at the end of the day fully loaded – excellent business for an army of packagers and porters. Then they board their buses returning to all points Kazakhstan and other “stans”. On busy days, especially in summer, there may be as many as 8,000 shoppers hitting the ICBC.

China’s top connectivity access to Central Asia and West Asia markets, and farther on down the road to Europe, is via Kazakhstan, which counts China as its second-largest trading partner. At the same time, it’s essential to consider that Khorgos is smack on the Xinjiang border, which implies maximum Chinese security alert.

The Yuxinou at Altynkol station, in Khorgos. Photo: Pepe Escobar
The Yuxinou at Altynkol station, in Khorgos. Photo: Pepe Escobar

Yet there’s nothing Orwellian about Khorgos. The CCP apparatus in far away Urumqi seems to understand pragmatically that the whole deal is all about a mega-mall, and not conducive to Uighur separatist shenanigans. And on top of it the really heavy business transits via Yuxinou. In the near future, it’s bound to evolve towards high-speed rail.

In terms of road traffic, container trucks conduct a hefty business at Khorgos – certainly more substantial than in other border crossings I visited, in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

There are two China-Kyrgyzstan border crossings. The more established one, at Torugart, leads straight to the capital Bishkek and then Tashkent in Uzbekistan. The road was repaved with loans from the Export-Import Bank of China and the Asian Development Bank.

The ADB also provided the financing for an alternative route from Bishkek to Osh, along with an $850 million loan from the EXIM Bank. This road is quite something, cutting through Kyrgyz mountains and passes and eliminating at least 220 km of travel in comparison with the ancient road. China Road and Bridge Cooperation was in charge of the construction, including a 3.3 km-long tunnel.

But it’s still a tricky road; on the last mountain pass before the final dash towards Bishkek, my driver Alex and I spent hours negotiating a cornucopia of lorries gone sideways in the snow and a myriad of clueless drivers stuck without tire chains.

China & the ‘stans

The other China-Kyrgyz border crossing is at the Irkeshtam pass, It used to be the main southern branch of the ancient Silk Road, coming straight from Kashgar. The road was resurfaced in 2013, adding to a connectivity integration net linking Kyrgyzstan, Xinjiang and the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan. I crossed a steady convoy of Chinese container trucks coming from Irkeshtam.

There’s only one China-Tajikistan border crossing, at the top of the Kulma pass, 4,363 meters high. The actual Chinese border is 14 km away from the Tajik border, very close to the Karakoram Highway: another instance of close connectivity. This road was opened in 2004 and also follows the ancient Silk Road.

The whole road between the Kulma pass and the Tajik capital Dushanbe, which includes the legendary Pamir Highway (the subject of an upcoming two-part special), is still a (slow) work in progress. It’s funded by a $254 million loan from China’s EXIM Bank with work by China Road and Bridge Cooperation.

Just outside Dushanbe, as I was leaving for the Pamir Highway, I saw a multi-level road intersection built with a loan from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and another from the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank.

What I saw was in fact history in the making; this was the AIIB’s first-ever development loan. There will be many others, as the connectivity between China and its neighboring ‘stans hits overdrive.

 
• Category: Economics • Tags: Central Asia, China, Kazakhstan, New Silk Road 
The pros and cons of being the Heartland in the 21st century
🔊 Listen RSS

Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. Crossing Tajikistan from west to northeast – Dushanbe to the Tajik-Kyrgyz border – and then Kyrgyzstan from south to north all the way to Bishkek via Osh, is one of the most extraordinary road trips on earth. Not only this is prime Ancient Silk Road territory but now is being propelled as a significant stretch of the 21st century New Silk Roads.

In addition to its cultural, historical and anthropological pull, this road trip also lays bare some of the key issues related to the development of Central Asia. It was particularly enlightening to hit the road as previously, at the 5th Astana Club meeting in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, I had had the pleasure of moderating a panel titled Central Asia at the Intersection of Global Interests: pros and cons of being Heartland.

The Heartland in the 21st century could not but be a major draw. Any serious analyst knows that Central Asia is the privileged corridor for both Europe and Asia at the heart of the New Silk Roads, as the Chinese-led BRI converges with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).

And yet, less than 10% of trade in Central Asia happens within the region, while 60% is directed to the EU. Idiosyncratic practices among the five former Soviet “Stans” still somewhat prevail. At the same time, there’s a consensus that measures such as a proposed, online, unified Silk Visa plan are bound to boost tourism and trade connectivity.

Banking experts such as Jacob Frenkel, chairman of JP Morgan Chase International, insist that the path towards inclusive growth in Central Asia entails access for financial services and financial tech; Nur-Sultan, incidentally, happens to be the only financial center within a 3,000-mile radius. Only a few years ago it was basically a potato field.

So it will be up to Kazakhs to capitalize on the financial ramifications of their independent, multi-vector foreign policy. After all, aware that his young nation was a “child of complicated history,” First President Nursultan Nazabayev from the beginning, in the early 1990s, wanted to prevent a Balkans scenario in Central Asia – as proposed as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy by Zbigniew Brzezinski in The Grand Chessboard. Recently Kazakhstan mediated quite successfully between Turkey and Russia. And then there’s the Kazakh hosting of the Astana process, which quickly evolved as the privileged road map for the pacification of Syria.

A link or a bridge?

Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, made a crucial point in the sidelines of our debate: the UN recently passed a unanimous resolution recognizing Central Asia as a world region. And yet, there is no structure for cooperation inside Central Asia. Tricky national border issues between the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers may have been solved. There are very few pending questions between, for instance, the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz. Most “Stans” are SCO members, some are EAEU members and all want to profit from BRI.

But as I later saw for myself on the road as I crossed Tajikistan and then Kyrgyzstan, tariff barriers still apply. Industrial cooperation is developing very slowly. Corruption is rife. Distrust against “foreigners” is inbred. And on top of it, the fallout of the US-China trade war affects mostly developing nations – such as the Central Asians. A solution, Starr argues, would be to boost the work of an established commission, and aim towards setting up a single market by 2025.

At the Nur-Sultan debate, my friend Bruno Macaes, former Minister for Europe in Portugal and author of the excellent The Dawn of Eurasia, argued that the thrust for the New Silk Roads remains sea transportation, and investment in ports. As Central Asia is landlocked, the emphasis should be on soft infrastructure. Kazakhstan is uniquely positioned to understand differences between trading bocks. Macaes argues that Nur-Sultan should aim to replicate the role of Singapore as a bridge.

Peter Burian, the EU Special Representative for Central Asia, chose to stress the positives: how Central Asia has managed to survive its new Heartland incarnation without conflict, and how it’s engaged in institutional building from scratch. The Baltics should be taken as an example. Burian insists the EU does not want to impose ready-made concepts, and would rather work as a link, not as a bridge. More EU economic presence in Central Asia means, in practice, an investment commitment of $1.2 billion in seven years, which may not amount to much but targets very specific, practical-minded projects.

Evgeny Vinokurov, chief economist of the Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development, touched on a real success story: the 15 day-only transportation/connectivity rail between China’s central provinces, Central Asia and the EU – now running at 400,000 cargo containers a year, and rising, and used by anyone from BMW to all manner of Chinese manufacturers. Over 10 million tons of merchandise a year is already moving West while six million tons are moving East. Vinokurov is adamant that the next step for Central Asia is to build industrial parks.

Svante Cornell, from the Institute for Security and Development Policy, emphasized a voluntary process, possibly with six nations (Afghanistan also included), and well-coordinated in practice (way beyond mere political integration). Models should be result-oriented ASEAN and Mercosur (presumably before Bolsonaro’s disruptive practices). Key issues involve facilitating smoother border crossings and for Central Asia to position itself as not just a corridor.

Essentially, Central Asia should think eastwards – in an SCO/ASEAN symbiosis, keeping in mind the role Singapore developed for itself as a global hub.

What about tech transfer?

As I saw for myself days later, when for instance, visiting the University of Central Asia in Khorog, in the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, set up by the Aga Khan foundation, there is a serious drive across Central Asia to invest in universities and techno centers. In terms of Chinese investment, for instance, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is financing hydropower in Kyrgyzstan. The EU is engaged in what it defines as a “trilateral project” – supporting education for Afghan women and universities in both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

This may all be discussed and deepened in an upcoming, first-time-ever summit of Central Asian presidents. Not bad as a first step.

Arguably the most intriguing intervention in the debate in Nur-Sultan was by former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev. He remarked that the GDP of four “Stans,” excluding Kazakhstan, is still smaller than Singapore’s. He insisted the road map ahead is to unite – mostly geoeconomically. He emphasized that both Russia and China “are officially complementary” and that’s “great for us.” Now it’s time to invest in human capital and thus generate more demand.

But once again, the inescapable factor is always China. Otorbaev, referring to BRI, insisted, “you must offer to us the highest technological solutions.” I asked him point-blank whether he could name a project with inbuilt, top technological transfer to Kyrgyzstan. He answered, “I didn’t see any added value so far.” Beijing better go back to the drawing board – seriously.

 
PastClassics
How America was neoconned into World War IV
The “war hero” candidate buried information about POWs left behind in Vietnam.
Our Reigning Political Puppets, Dancing to Invisible Strings