Foreign Correspondent

Foreign Correspondent: Australia solved the gun problem. We can too

A lot of us don't realize our retirement funds are in companies that make guns like the deadly AR-15


Progressives aren’t supposed to say this. But none of the major gun control proposals now being debated in Washington would actually stop mass shootings. I know that sounds heretical, or even worse, like an echo of the National Rifle Association line. But it’s true.

An AR-15 style assault rifle, perfectly legal in the US

Let’s take a look:

Ban sales of AR-15 and other assault rifles. Assault rifles are deadly. But other semi-automatic weapons, which would not be banned, are just as dangerous. And even if all semi-automatic rifles were banned, Americans still have access to plenty of deadly ordinance. In 1966 a shooter at the University of Texas used a bolt action and pump action rifles to murder 14 and wound 31.

Better background checks will stop the shooters. Such checks might stop a random shooter or two, but almost all the recent mass killers would have passed background checks. Proposed stricter background checks would not stop gun sales to the severely mentally ill.

Require gun purchasers to be 21. Ask any teens who have had an adult buy them bottles of alcohol how well that works. In a number of recent shootings, young teens stole guns from their parents’ gun cabinets.

There’s a fundamental flaw in gun reform laws currently under consideration. America is flooded with firearms. Potential mass murderers have access to tens of millions of legal and illegal guns. The spousal abuser or the psychopath can find a very deadly weapon with relative ease. So even the most positive, partial reforms won’t solve the problem.

Don’t get me wrong. I support significant reform measures — but for political reasons — not because they will have much immediate impact. The NRA’s stranglehold on US politics must be broken. Oregon took a good step recently by prohibiting domestic abusers and those subject to restraining orders from owning guns. Banning assault rifles and high capacity magazines would definitely weaken the gun lobby’s power.

And I think it’s time Americans seriously consider gun reform that would actually stop mass killings. Australians did it and so can we.

The US and Australia share some common history. The British sent settlers to occupy colonial land, although the Australians had to get out of prison first. Both countries encouraged gun ownership by white settlers, Rebecca Peters, a representative of Australia’s International Action Network on Small Arms, told me. “Early settlers depended on killing animals and the indigenous people who lived there before.”

And in modern times both countries had strong gun lobbies paid for by firearm manufacturers. The Australian gun lobby had blocked effective gun control at both the federal and state levels.

For Australians, everything changed on April 28, 1996. That day a young curly haired, blond man brought an AR-15 and another semi–automatic rifle to the popular tourist town of Pt. Arthur in southeastern Tasmania. He fired randomly, killing 35 people and wounding 18. The massacre of men, women and children shocked Australians much like the Parkland, Florida impacted Americans.

But the Aussies did something about it.

Just 12 days after the shooting, conservative Prime Minister John Howard brought together legislators to pass comprehensive, national gun control laws. But what appeared to be a legislative miracle was actually the culmination of years of grass-roots efforts.

Local activists and public health professionals had been educating the public since the late 1980s, said Peters. They found a sympathetic audience among trade unionists and some Labor Party politicians. “We built a solid grassroots movement,” she said. “We didn’t just leap into tragedy mode after a shooting.”

Activists called for universal gun registration, and it was just as controversial in Australia as in the US. The gun lobby argued that the government would confiscate everyone’s guns.

Simon Chapman, emeritus professor in public health at the University of Sydney, remembers the most effective argument gun reform campaigners made on that topic.

“We register cars,” he would say. “We register boats. We even register dogs. So what’s the problem in registering guns?”

So in the spring of 1996, the federal parliament passed a comprehensive measures that included:

All semi-automatic rifles and pump action shotguns were banned, as were high capacity magazines.

The government purchased existing firearms that had been banned, paying retail plus 10 percent.

All firearms were registered and new buyers were required to prove a “genuine reason” for gun ownership such as hunting or target practice at a shooter’s club.

New gun owners must wait 28 days to take delivery, be subject to a comprehensive background check, and take a gun safety course.

The results were striking. There have been no mass shootings. Gun murders and suicides have dropped precipitously. There are 200 fewer deaths every year as a result of gun control, according to Peters.

And, oh yes, hunters continue to hunt, and target shooters continue to plink. No armies of jack booted police have stormed private residences to seize weapons.

Australia’s stringent gun control laws aren’t likely to be adopted in the U.S. anytime soon. But we can learn something from their political organizing.

Today, the NRA stops even the smallest gun reforms from passing the U.S Congress. But other, seemingly undefeatable lobbies nave been weakened. Look at Big Tobacco and the right-wing Cuba Lobby. The NRA could be next.

Today the NRA faces a formidable enemy. The Parkland high school students have sparked grass-roots efforts among other students and their parents. They’ve sat in at the Florida state house and in the U.S. Senate.

Peters said grass roots organizing defeated the gun lobby in Australia and it can be done in the US as well. “The NRA uses power of intimidation,” she said. “And they often win the public relations war. But they can be defeated.”

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks in 48 Hills. The revised and updated edition of his book The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of US and Policy ­will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich, friend him on Facebook, Reese Erlich Foreign Correspondent, and visit his webpage

Foreign Correspondent: The Russians aren’t the only election hackers

The US frequently interfered in Afghan elections in support of one corrupt leader or another. Here an Afghan farmer who used to grow opium, a major source of corruption among Afghan leaders. Photo: Reese Erlich

Welcome to the latest Washington crisis. The American people are supposed to be petrified at the threat posed by Russian spies who hack our emails, buy ads on Facebook and impersonate Americans in chat rooms. The evil Ruskies have the audacity to use phony websites to divide us over issues of racism and immigration — as if we aren’t perfectly capable of doing that ourselves.  

The US frequently interfered in Afghan elections in support of one corrupt leader or another. Here an Afghan farmer who used to grow opium, a major source of corruption among Afghan leaders. Photo: Reese Erlich

And these no-goodnicks are getting ready to do it all over again for the 2018 elections!

Of course, the United States has been meddling in other countries’ elections for decades, sometimes resulting in the overthrow of governments and civilian deaths. But more on that in a moment.

What are the major allegations against the Russians so far?

* They hacked the email servers of the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton campaign. They gave the embarrassing material to Wikileaks, which made it public. Wikileaks denies the data came from the Russians.

* Trump campaign officials met with Russian diplomats and operatives in hopes of getting negative info on Clinton.

* Special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians for various crimes associated with creating phony websites and travelling to the United States to organize political rallies. The Russians sought to discredit Clinton and elect Trump.

Trump officials, and Trump himself, may have committed all kinds of crimes, including lying to the FBI, money laundering, tax evasion and obstruction of justice. But there’s no evidence that the Russians succeeded in electing Trump, or even had a major impact on the elections.

The Russians didn’t hack voting machines. So there was no Russia-inspired vote fraud.

And even the Department of Justice, in its indictment of the 13 Russians, admitted, “There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”

Hillary Clinton lost the election because Trump’s campaign lies fooled people. She ran a bad campaign, which failed to mobilize the progressive Democratic Party base.

But even assuming the worst charges against the Russians are true, they pale by comparison to U.S. meddling in elections around the world.

Dov Levin, a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University, studied 117 cases of United States and Soviet/Russian interference in elections from 1948-2000. The United States accounted for a whopping 69% of the cases.

For example, the United States intervened in every Italian election for decades starting in 1948, according to Levin.

Italy had a strong Communist Party, which had spearheaded resistance to the Nazis during World War II. The United States feared that a democratically elected communist government would pull Italy out of NATO and either become neutral or even ally with the USSR. So the United States used any means necessary to keep pro-U.S. parties in power.

The CIA and other agencies shoveled money to the U.S.-allied Christian Democratic Party.

“The money often disappeared into the villas and Swiss bank accounts of politicians,” Levin told me. “We worsened corruption in Italian politics.”

By the early 1990s, Italy’s Cold War parties dissolved in the face of corruption scandals. “The whole system collapsed into dust,” said Levin.

Some United States intelligence officials justify such illegal interventions as necessary because we back the good guys. That view is echoed by some in the mainstream media.

New York Times reporter Scott Shane wrote, “American [electoral] interventions have generally been aimed at helping non-authoritarian candidates challenge dictators or otherwise promoting democracy.”

Sorry guys, the record doesn’t bear that out. The United States occasionally supports a centrist — but only so long as he supports U.S. policy. The United States often backs right-wingers who use violence to stay in power. 

In the 1980s, the United States created and financed a Nicaraguan rebel group called the Contras. They sought to overthrow the Sandinista government, which had come to power in a popular 1979 revolution.

The contras murdered more than a hundred teachers, doctors and other civilians working for the government in a U.S.-sponsored terror campaign. One faction of the contras shipped cocaine to United States to pay for their armaments. Those shipments helped create the crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

The Sandinistas won the presidency in free and fair elections in 1984. But in 1990 the United States made an all-out push against the Sandinistas. The CIA pumped money into the opposition party and planted derogatory news stories, using a classic CIA technique.

The CIA fed stories to German newspapers claiming Sandinista leaders had Swiss bank accounts filled with ill-gotten gains. The opposition used those reports to great effect, and it won the elections.

U.S. officials argued that fighting communism sometimes required backing nefarious characters. If fighting communism was the real U.S. motivation, then it would presumably would have stopped after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. But nooooooo.

The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and it soon faced a political dilemma. It had to convince people at home and abroad that the United States was building a democratic nation. But the drug dealing warlords running the government weren’t interested in free and fair elections. They just wanted power.

The United States installed Hamid Karzai as president in 2002, but by 2009 he was causing problems for the United States. I spoke with Matthew Hoh, who was a State Department official in Afghanistan at the time.

“Karzai was weary of the war,” he said. “He opposed the U.S. airstrikes on civilians. He wanted talks with the Taliban, and we were against that.”

The CIA tried to use the 2009 elections to oust Karzai. First the elections were delayed by three months, a violation of the country’s constitution. Then the CIA promoted news articles, rallies and cash payments to politicians in an effort to create an anti-Karzai coalition.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in his memoirs called the effort a “clumsy and failed putsch.”

But Karzai outsmarted the United States through massive vote fraud. Karzai won when the main opposition leader withdrew from a runoff election.

Of course, the Russians have also interfered in elections, most recently in Ukraine and other areas formerly controlled by the USSR. They also sought, unsuccessfully, to impact the 2016 U.S. elections.

But contrary to the U.S. government portrayal of a sophisticated ring of cyber spies, the Russian efforts were decidedly old school and not likely to have much impact.

In the old days, the Russians would romance secretaries and entice them to steal files from their politician bosses’ file cabinets. These Russian “Romeos” would then plant the compromising documents in friendly media. Nowadays the spies can hack email servers and make embarrassing information public online.

The United States shouldn’t interfere in other countries elections, including those in Russia. And Russia shouldn’t interfere in our elections. But it’s time to stop the hysteria in Washington that somehow Russia has succeeded in undermining U.S. democracy. It hasn’t. Only we can do that.

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks in 48 Hills. The revised and updated edition of his book The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of US and Policy ­will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich, friend him on Facebook, Reese Erlich Foreign Correspondent, and visit his webpage

Trump’s new plan: Arm theater ushers

President Trump has asked the Defense Dept. to help him acquire enough guns to arm every theater usher in America

WASHINGTON DC — President Donald Trump announced new plans today to combat mass shootings: arming movie theater ushers.

“When we’ve locked down schools by arming teachers,” he said at a Rose Garden press conference, “mass shooters will inevitably turn to movie theaters. We’ve got to be proactive.”

President Trump has asked the Defense Dept. to help him acquire enough guns to arm every theater usher in America

“Movie ushers, with their black suit jackets and running shoes, can easily conceal a semi automatic hand gun and then run after the perp,” said the president in apparently off the cuff remarks. “We’ll have a Glock in every sock.”

The press conference was initially called after the president’s meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But the movie usher question dominated the session. Chancellor Merkel declined to offer an opinion on the issue, noting that the Glock company is Austrian, not German.

Critics were quick to point out that untrained, 18-year movie ushers might not provide the best protection against angry movie patrons with AR-15s.

“We strongly oppose arming ushers,” said Sarah Whitehead, spokesperson for Movie Goers for a Quiet Evening, an advocacy group. “We think handgun permits at cinemas should be limited to movie managers.”

“Managers are more mature and responsible,” she noted. “They’ve got experience handling crowds during midnight movies.”

White House sources said arming ushers is only part of a much broader safety program. “President Trump realizes that movie theaters aren’t the only place mass shooting might occur,” one highly placed White House source said. “We have to consider arming lifeguards at city pools and peanut vendors at ballparks. Eventually, we’ll have more good guys with guns than bad guys.”

Clyde C. Clack, a spokesperson for the arms industry, provided some insight in an exclusive interview. “Normally, we let the National Rifle Association represent our views,” Lever said, “but this issue is just too important. It involves not only the safety of young Junior Mints consumers, but the health of the gun industry.”

He explained that years ago, arms manufacturers figured out that only selling guns to hunters severely limited gun sales. “So we helped hype the fear of home invasions. Everyone needs a gun to stop those intruders.”

“But our research shows that the maximum number of guns an individual will buy for self defense is 25. So that market is almost saturated.”

“Now–with the market for school teachers, movie ushers and peanut vendors– why it’s almost limitless.”

“When these proposals are adopted, we’ll be guaranteeing our workers jobs and our board members profits for years to come,” he said with a broad smile.

A few details need to be worked out, however. President Trump’s remarks caught aides off guard. They quickly scrambled to figure out how movie ushers, who can barely afford the cost of clip-on bow ties, will be able to buy semi-automatic pistols costing $600.

“It may require government subsidies,” said the official. “But at least you can feel secure dropping your kids off at the mall movie theater so they can see the latest zombie apocalypse movie in peace.”

Columnist Reese Erlich dabbles in satire, of which this is a little dab. Prior to filing a law suit, please note that most of the above information isn’t true, although it may be some day.

Foreign Correspondent: The US occupation of northern Syria

In 2014 the US used the Islamic State attacks on Yazidis as the excuse to bomb and later send troops to northern Syria. Here aid workers provide food for Yazidis in 2014. (Photo: Reese Erlich)

When President Obama started bombing Syria in 2014, he enjoyed bipartisan support in Washington. Americans were appalled by the atrocities of the Islamic State, which had massacred Yazidis, and seized swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.

In 2014 the US used the Islamic State attacks on Yazidis as the excuse to bomb and later send troops to northern Syria. Here aid workers provide food for Yazidis in 2014. (Photo: Reese Erlich)

Far from being a humanitarian intervention, however, I warned at the time that the US was on its way to yet another Middle East war. “Once again, the U.S. is waging an open-ended war with no concern for the long-term well-being of the people in the region,” I wrote. 

And, sure enough, with the Islamic State on the ropes, the Trump administration has announced that some 2000 US troops will stay permanently in the Kurdish region of northern Syria. Ostensibly, the troops will fight IS remnants and combat Iranian influence. In reality, the US seeks to remove President  Basher al Assad, or failing that, dismember Syria into zones controlled by outside powers.

On Feb. 7, US jets and artillery attacked pro-Assad forces in Khusham, an oil-rich area in north eastern Syria outside of the Kurdish region. The US-allied SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) had captured the area from the Islamic State and Assad-allied troops were trying to take it. Needless to say, the fighting had nothing to do with Yazidis or fighting remnants of the Islamic State.

Then on Feb. 9, Israel bombed a dozen sites in Syria after Assad’s artillery shot down an Israeli jet fighter.  The US is allied with Israel against Assad, Russia and Iran.

The clashes are just the latest indication of the expanded role played by outside powers. And the US occupation won’t be easy. The SDF leadership currently allied with the US have their own agenda. And Turkey considers that group to be terrorists and has sent its army into Syria in an effort to wipe them out.

How did the US get into what may become yet another Mideast quagmire?

In September 2014 the US had no allies on the ground when it began bombing the Islamic State in Syria. The CIA and Pentagon had spent over a billion dollars trying to create pro-US rebel groups that would fight Assad. Both agencies failed miserably as the ostensible guerrillas took US arms and promptly handed them over to terrorist groups fighting in Syria.

But there was one existing insurgent group that effectively battled the IS. The Kurdish based PYD (Democratic Union Party) and its armed wing the YPG (People’s Protection Units) fought and won a heroic battle against the IS in the Kurdish city of Kobane. The Pentagon started arming and training the YPG, and later the SDF, which includes both Syrian Arabs and Kurds.

The problem, from a US perspective, was that the PYD is affiliated with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) in Turkey, a leftist group with a quasi-anarchist ideology developed by their leader Abdullah Ocalan, now imprisoned in Turkey.

The PYD promotes women’s participation and leadership, unique among rebels in the region. It has created local councils advocating equal rights for all of Syria’s religious and ethnic groups. The PYD seeks to extend its system throughout Syria, not just in Rojava, their term for the Kurdish region.

The Pentagon was willing to ignore the PYD’s leftism and frequent praise of Ocalan because SDF could really fight.

Turkey’s leaders, however, denounce the PKK and PYD as terrorists. The PKK does engage in armed struggle, but it’s  aimed at Turkey’s military and police, not civilians.  The accusation of terrorism conveniently covers up Turkish government repression of its Kurdish minority.

Turkey invaded northern Syria in 2016 and seized part of the Kurdish region in order to prevent the SDF from creating a contiguous territory along the Turkish border. Turkey, like every foreign power invading Syria, proclaimed their incursions as temporary. But it set up military bases and ran electricity wires from Turkey into the Syrian cities under their control.

Then on January 20 this year Turkey launched an invasion of Afrin, an isolated area in the far northwest of Rojava. Turkish bombing of the city has already killed 150 civilians and wounded 300, according to Sinam Mohammad, the representative of the Syrian Democratic Council in the US. The council is the political wing of the SDF.

She told me that the ultimate goal of Turkey is to drive the Kurds out of Afrin in order to create a buffer zone under permanent Turkish control. She accuses the Turkish Army of ethnic cleansing. “They want to kick out the Kurds,” she said.                                                                

The Turkish military created a Syrian Arab militia, appropriating the name Free Syrian Army. The FSA developed some popular support based on Arab hostility towards Kurds and complaints that the PYD monopolizes power in areas it controls.

The FSA also stands accused of war crimes for mutilating the body of a Kurdish female fighter. FSA members shot a video of themselves standing over the partially naked body of the woman with her left breast mutilated.  Sinam Mohammad compared such actions to atrocities carried out by terrorist groups.

“What’s the difference between them and Islamic State?” she said.

But the US has no plans to prevent the Turks from taking Afrin, putting the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians in peril.

The Pentagon seems to be drawing a line at the Rojava town of  Manbij, some 37 miles east of Afrin. The US sent high ranking army officers into Manjib, riding in vehicles prominently displaying US flags, accompanied by a New York Times reporter to make sure the message was received in Ankara.

For the moment, it appears the US military will maintain its alliance with Kurdish forces while Turkey will continue its military opposition, but within limits.

In my opinion, the PYD is playing a very dangerous game allying with the US. It may think the US will protect the Kurds, but nothing in history suggests it will be a reliable partner. And the people of Rojava will suffer.

“The goal of the US isn’t to help the Kurds in Rojava,” an American volunteer who fought with the YPG told me. “The goal of the US is to kill Bashar al-Assad or, if that proves impossible, to destroy the Syrian Arab Republic. If they did care about the Kurds, the US would have stopped the Turkish attack on Afrin.”

There’s an old saying commonly used in the Middle East, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” We Americans have another old saying, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks in 48 Hills. The revised and updated edition of his book The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of US and Policy ­will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich, friend him on Facebook, Reese Erlich Foreign Correspondent, and visit his webpage

Foreign Correspondent: Cuba’s ‘sonic attack’ on diplomats is pure science fiction

Cuba has no motive to attack US diplomats at the exact time US-Cuba relations were improving and helping the Cuban economy. Here a privately owned snack bar in Havana, reflecting one of many types of economic reforms. Photo: Reese Erlich

HAVANA — The mainstream media stories were straight out of a science fiction movie. Somebody in Cuba was aiming a super sophisticated “sonic weapon” at US diplomats here in Havana, causing them to experience hearing loss, dizziness, nausea, severe headaches and even brain damage similar to a concussion.

Cuba has no motive to attack US diplomats at the exact time US-Cuba relations were improving and helping the Cuban economy. Here a privately owned snack bar in Havana, reflecting one of many types of economic reforms. Photo: Reese Erlich

From December 2016 through February 2017, according to the Trump administration, 22 American diplomats heard strange sounds in their homes and hotel rooms. They suffered a variety of debilitating symptoms.

Trump administration sources told CNN, “The device was so sophisticated, it was outside the range of audible sound. And it was so damaging, that one US diplomat now needs to use a hearing aid.”

President Trump blamed the Cuban government for the attacks. “I do believe Cuba’s responsible,” he said at a Rose Garden press conference. “I do believe that.”

Other administration officials blamed the Russians or rogue elements in the Cuban government.

I went back to Cuba a year later to find out what happened to the sonic weapon story. Turns out the US has produced no evidence that an attack took place, let alone one directed by the Cuban government. The FBI made four visits to Cuba and could find no indications of an attack, according to conservative Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who visited Havana this month.

“This whole thing is bullshit,” one mainstream reporter living in Havana told me.

But the bullshit had serious consequences. Last September, the US used the incident to expel 15 Cuban diplomats from their Washington Embassy and withdrew half the staff from the US Embassy in Havana.

All the US consular staff were evacuated except for one person handling emergency visas. Cubans must now travel to US consulates in Colombia or Mexico to apply for visas, costing them thousands of dollars on top of the existing stiff processing fees.

The Trump administration issued warnings that US visitors to Cuba won’t be safe in a hotel where the alleged attacks took place. To date no tourists have reported coming under sonic weapon attack.

The Cuban government interviewed 300 people living near the homes of US diplomats along with workers at the Hotel Capri where the attacks allegedly took place. Not one person heard the noises claimed by the diplomats nor did they suffer any of the symptoms.

Independent scientists noted that a sonic weapon that caused hearing loss, if it even existed, would have to be mounted on a truck in front of the diplomat’s house.

Sonic waves can’t cause a concussion, according to Jürgen Altmann, a physicist at the Technische Universität Dortmund in Germany. Altmann told The New York Times, “I know of no acoustic effect that can cause concussion symptoms. Sound going through the air cannot shake your head.

The sonic weapon theory proved so ridiculous that the administration has quietly stopped citing it. The US now speculates that some virus or other medical attack may have been responsible.

So what’s really going on? The medical ailments may be rooted in psychosomatic illness. One person can experience symptoms, and in the pressure cooker environment faced by some diplomats, could attribute the problems to an attack. Others then attribute different, unexplained symptoms to a similar attack.

I contacted my old friend Dr. Wendel Brunner, the former public health director of Contra Costa County, who has experience in the field. 

“Maybe it is some other, perfectly normal illness, infection, or contamination that is compounded by anxiety of staff being in a tense situation in Cuba,” he told me.

The diplomats’ physical symptoms may be real, he noted, but fear and anxiety may have led to attributing all kinds of symptoms to a non-existent attack.

“I am sure lots of visitors to Cuba have dizziness, headaches, etc., but we don’t hear about it because they don’t work in the Embassy.”

“It seems all too convenient that the Embassy is under mysterious ‘attack’ at a time when the Trump administration wants to disrupt relations with Cuba,” Dr. Brunner added.

So what’s really going on?

The Cuban government certainly has no motivation to debilitate US diplomats. The alleged attacks began in December 2016 just as the US and Cuba were rushing to solidify their newly established relations that benefited the Cuban economy.

The Russians, who the US has speculated were potential attackers, have absolutely no reason to wreck US-Cuban relations. Besides, no third party could engage in such attacks on foreign diplomats without the knowledge of the tightly controlled Cuban intelligence agencies.

Right-wing Cuban Americans in Florida and New Jersey would certainly benefit from disrupting US-Cuban relations. They opposed President Obama’s openings to Cuba and pressured Trump to scale back US visits to the island.  

“There is an anti-Cuban mafia in Miami, and we are victims of their dirty work that involve certain people very close to the governing circles of the United States,” said Col. Ramiro Ramírez, the Cuban official responsible for security of diplomats.

But to date the Cubans have offered no evidence that the right-wingers were responsible. So for now, we have to await more evidence before the cause of the illnesses might be explained.

The Trump administration has declined to make any of the victims available for press interviews nor have their medical records been evaluated by independent sources.

But one thing is certain. US visitors to Cuba are in no danger of being zapped by sonic weapons in their hotel rooms. Come on down and see for yourself.

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column on international affairs appears every two weeks in 48 Hills. He has visited Cuba 15 times since 1968. His home page is; follow him on Twitter @ReeseErlich or on Facebook, Reese Erlich foreign correspondent.

Foreign Correspondent: Trump’s phony support for Iran’s popular protests

Iranians overwhelmingly oppose Trump's policies. Reese Erlich photo

During a recent reporting trip to Iran, I interviewed almost two dozen people at random in both rich and poor neighborhoods of Tehran. All the middle and upper-middle class people I spoke with said the government of President Hassan Rouhani had made economic progress, although not as much as they wanted. All the working-class Iranians said they had seen no economic improvements since Rouhani’s election in 2013.

Iranians overwhelmingly oppose Trump’s policies. Reese Erlich photo

Starting in late December, spontaneous protests broke out among young, working-class Iranians. While hundreds demonstrated in Tehrantens of thousands demonstrated in eighty towns and smaller cities. To date, the government has arrested an estimated 1,000 people and twenty-two have died. The 2009 Green Movement mobilized much larger crowds but attracted mostly intellectuals and other middle-income folks.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that Iran’s economy will grow 4.2 percent by March. But, just as in the United States, very little of the country’s wealth trickles down.

A construction worker told me he has no regular place to live while working in Tehran. Sometimes contractors provide refurbished shipping containers as living quarters. Sometimes he stays with relatives. He blamed Iran’s economic problems on the economic sanctions imposed by the United States. He also blamed the Iranian government for wasting billions of dollars on wars in Syria and Iraq.

 “First you have to feed your own people and then go around helping others,” he told me. He criticized widespread Iranian corruption. When the Revolutionary Guard builds projects, for example, workers often don’t get paid on time and then the officers say, “Oh, we spent the money in Syria or Iraq.”

But many other Iranians, while critical of corruption, are not willing to break with the Rouhani government. Tens of thousands of people participated in pro-government marches on December 5 as hardliners blamed the United States and foreign powers for the unrest.

Back in the United States, President Donald Trump has sought to use the protests to justify his aggressive policies.

He tweeted, “Such respect for the people of Iran as they try to take back their corrupt government. You will see great support from the United States at the appropriate time!”

But Iranians don’t believe Trump supports them. In my numerous, random interviews, I did not encounter a single person with anything positive to say about Trump. They opposed his ban on Iranian travel to the United States, his declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and his efforts to cancel the nuclear accord.

“Iranians are angry at Trump’s policies,” veteran journalist Mohammad Reza Noroozpour told me.

Iranians worry that Trump will use the anti-government protests as an excuse to abrogate the nuclear agreement.

In 2015, the United States, Iran, and five other countries signed an internationally binding agreement, ratified by the U.N. Security Council. Iran agreed not to develop nuclear weapons. In return, the United States and European countries were supposed to lift harsh economic sanctions.

Iran has lived up to its end of the bargain. It poured concrete into a major nuclear reactor, shipped enriched uranium out of the country, severely reduced the number of centrifuges used to enrich uranium, and allowed intrusive inspections at all its nuclear facilities. The International Atomic Energy Agency has verified that Iran has no nuclear weapons program.

Nevertheless, last October Trump decertified the agreement, a unilateral move rejected by all the other signatories: Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China. Trump is seriously considering re-imposing sanctions, using the Iran protests as an excuse.

So what is Iran going to do? Iranian officials are considering options ranging from stepped-up diplomacy to military confrontation, according to Iranian foreign policy experts and high government officials in Iran.

“When Trump became President, I think this was a big shock for the Rouhani administration,” Foad Izadi told me. Izadi is an assistant professor at the North American Studies Department at the University of Tehran. Rouhani’s supporters hope Trump will “be impeached before he can cause more damage. And if that doesn’t happen, they are hoping that Trump’s advisers will tell him that agreement is actually good for the United States.”

Rouhani, a political centrist, wants to see less confrontation with the West and greater foreign investments. His camp advocates robust diplomatic efforts against Trump, trying to take advantage of fractures within the US administration. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has taken a softer line, arguing the administration must insure that Iran lives up to the agreement. The heads of intelligence agencies and the former generals now populating the White House, on the other hand, advocate a hard line against Iran.

“The reformists don’t want to provoke the US,” said Noroozpour, and hope pressure from European allies will restrain Trump.

By contrast, the conservative camp, known in Iran as principlists, advocate a series of escalating actions that would not violate the nuclear accord but would nonetheless send a message to Washington.

The principlists “emphasize a new alliance with Russia and Turkey,” Noroozpour explained. “Principlists believe this alliance can force the US to get out of the Middle East.”

The principlists insist that Iran can reinstitute its nuclear engineering and science programs at universities, which have languished over the past few years. Also, under International Atomic Energy Agency rules, Iran can enrich uranium up to 20 percent for medical research. Iran could enrich uranium to even higher levels as part of plans to develop nuclear powered submarines. But Iran currently has no nuclear subs.

Professor Izadi told me that, as a sign of even stronger resistance, some principlists want Iran to withdraw from the decades-old Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which Iran ratified back in the 1960s. Conservatives argue that the treaty allows western spies to enter sensitive Iranians military bases under the guise of snap inspections.

These principlists say, according to Izadi, “The benefits of NPT have not materialized for Iran.”

In my opinion, if Iran formally withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, US hardliners would immediately claim Iran was rushing to make a bomb, leading to the further escalation of tensions and possible confrontation. North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 as the first step in developing its nuclear weapons.

But that doesn’t worry some principlists, according to a high-ranking government official who asked to remain anonymous. “Some principlists now advocate confrontation with the US,” he said. Iran wouldn’t directly attack the United States, but would utilize allies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen.

“We can bother the US around the world,” he said confidently. “We have nothing to lose. The negotiations were important for our national dignity. We will not be humiliated.”

Ironically, the hardliners in the United States and Iran play into one another’s hands. Trump and has cronies seek to use the popular protests in Iran as justification for more attacks. The hardliners in Iran want to blame the protests on foreign powers in order to justify more confrontation with the United States.

Let us hope saner voices prevail on both sides.

Death of a suitcase

Seacaucus Sally likes Reese Erlich's books, too

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT Ralph died on an escalator in a foreign airport on Christmas Eve.

I called my black carry-on suitcase “Ralph” because he was almost like family. Ralph was 30 years old in suitcase years. His zipper had broken, and I managed to fall onto his pull-up handle and break it.

Rather than leave him in an unmarked, third-world landfill, I brought his remains back to Oakland. The other luggage in my closet and I held a quiet memorial around what remained of our Christmas tree. Almost all the soft sides were there. Even a few hard siders I hadn’t seen in decades showed up.

Seacaucus Sally likes Reese Erlich’s books, too

We recalled the good times and bad. Years ago, I tied a pink ribbon around Ralph’s handle and he accused me of trying to make him look like a girl. I called him a sexist.

When the memorial was finished, I hoisted Ralph by his one good strap handle and put him in the recycle bin near some old Christmas tree lights. He would have wanted it that way.

The story goes back decades before modern suitcases were even invented. I was taking a train from East Berlin to Budapest in 1989. I had one of those large, hard sided suitcases with the wheels attached on the narrow side. I pulled it with a long plastic handle, but it kept tipping over, amusing the East Germans, who had never seen wheels on any kind of suitcase.

I swore I would get a more balanced suitcase, one that fit in an airplane’s overhead compartment. As a freelance journalist I eventually traveled to 97 countries. I learned to keep all my baggage with me in case of last-minute plane changes, interaction with corrupt airport baggage handlers, or being tossed unceremoniously out of a country when officials ignored my visa.

So one day I wandered into a luggage store in Berkeley. That’s where I met Ralph. I was examining the merchandise when a voice said, “Psssst, over here. I’m tough, reliable and cost only 75 bucks.” To this day I’m not sure what was more weird — a talking suitcase or a Samsonite rollboard for only $75.

Ralph was right. He had a nice compartment for dress clothes and expanded easily with a flip of the zipper. And he measured 25″ lengthwise, a size that is officially too big for overhead bins but in reality fits just fine.

Over the years I took Ralph everywhere — from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. He got rained on in El Salvador and muddied in Syrian refugee camps. When a piece of him tore, I repaired it with duct tape. When the wheels went squeaky, squeaky, I sprayed on some WD 40. He came through it all.

He only got lost once when someone pulled him off the San Francisco airport carousel by mistake. Ralph protested but apparently the errant traveler didn’t speak luggage. That night an airline worker delivered Ralph to my house, embarrassed but OK.

I never told Ralph, but I did plan ahead for the day when he would roll no more. Ten years ago, while shopping in outlet stores in Secaucus, New Jersey, I bought another 25-inch carry on. But Ralph lasted much longer than anyone expected.

I kept the New Jersey suitcase, now named Secaucus Sally, in the closet sheltered from the harsh indignities of United Airlines overhead bins and luggage carousels. After Ralph’s memorial I brushed off the dust and got her ready for the next voyage.

Modest as ever, she had only one request. “If the overhead bins are full, don’t let United Airlines drag me out like they did that poor doctor sitting in an overbooked seat.” I promised. No suitcase ever deserves that.

So now every Christmas as the fog descends on San Francisco and snow storms block airports around the country, my thoughts turn to Ralph. He is the last of a breed: 25 inches long and a suitcase you can talk to. They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Reese Erlich, author of the Foreign Correspondent column, occasionally dabbles in humor, usually without much success. His columns appear twice monthly in 48 Hills. Visit his home page, follow him on Twitter @ReeseErlich and on Facebook at Reese Erlich foreign correspondent.

The future of an independent Catalonia

The Catalan flag

During a trip to Barcelona, I sat down to read a local newspaper and, although I understand Spanish, I couldn’t fathom a word. The newspaper was in Catalan. Catalonia is part of Spain but has its own distinct language, territory, culture and history of resistance to oppression.

It was the Spring of 2003, and I was speaking on a panel with other US journalists opposed to the Iraq War. The conservative government in Madrid supported the US invasion; the progressive government in Catalonia did not. Hundreds of people came out to our events, which were sponsored by the Barcelona city government.

The Catalan flag

Catalonia, which is located in the northeast of Spain, now has an even bigger dispute with a conservative government in Madrid. In October, the Catalan parliament declared independence. Then the central authorities, led by the right-wing Popular Party (PP), seized control of the Catalan government and jailed some of its leaders. Other leaders fled to Belgium to avoid arrest.

The central government dissolved the Catalan parliament and called new legislative elections for Dec. 21. Both pro- and anti-independence parties are mobilizing for the elections, and the results may be close.

Opponents of independence argue that Catalan secession would splinter Spain, and worsen economic and political conditions in Catalonia. Richard Silberstein is an American attorney who has worked in Barcelona since 1992. His firm represents multinational corporations, among others. “The Catalán government,” he told me “was willing to ram secession down the throats of the majority of the Catalán population through undemocratic, illegal means.”

Independistas disagree, saying Catalans voted for independence in a fair election. They say they are fighting for democracy and social justice. “Today everything is in the hands of the rich people, the same as in [former dictator Francisco] Franco’s time,” Xavi Turull told me. “Now the people are taking power.” Turull is a well known Catalan musician and independence advocate.

Who’s right? Well, it’s complicated.

To the extent Americans know any Catalan history, it’s from George Orwell’s seminal book Homage to Catalonia. He described the 1930s civil war when communists, socialists, anarchists and progressives fought Spanish fascists, who were backed by Hitler and Mussolini.

From 1931-1939, when Spain elected a progressive government, Catalans enjoyed considerable autonomy with the right to speak their own language and control local government. When Franco seized power in 1939, he crushed Catalan autonomy along with democratic rights throughout Spain.

The struggle for Catalan rights continued throughout the Franco era and down to the present. In a 2006 referendum 78% of Catalans voted to establish a Statute of Autonomy, which gave Catalonia control over cultural matters, education, healthcare, and local government, among other matters.

But in 2010, as a result of a legal action spearheaded by the conservative PP, Spain’s Constitutional Court rewrote 14 provisions of the Statute and changed the interpretation of 27 others. Over a million Catalans demonstrated against the court decision.

“We got very angry,” Turull said. “Why belong to a country that overrules our laws.”

That’s not how the pro-unity forces see the issue.  Silberstein said the independence movement propagates populist myths based on a false sense of Catalan victimhood. He noted that Catalonia is one of the richest regions of Spain.

The independence movement is “an insult to people who really are oppressed, who have dictatorships or face ethnic cleansing,” he said. “I would challenge anyone to show how they are oppressed.”

But many Catalans do, indeed, see themselves as oppressed. That was reflected on October 1 when the province held an independence referendum. The central government declared the voting illegal and sent security forces to arrest independence party leaders and block people from voting. Over 800 people were injured in clashes with police and Civil Guards.

Catalans voted 91% in favor of independence, although because of a boycott by unity supporters, only 42% of registered voters participated.

“Lots of people were horrified, including investors,” said Silberstein. “It opened the floodgates for companies moving out.” More than 2,400 Catalan based corporations have technically relocated by moving their headquarter addresses to Spanish territory.

The vote was a watershed moment for independistas, however. “We celebrated,” said Turull. “We were so happy. But we knew it wouldn’t last.”

Turull acknowledged that the independence movement is mostly made up of intellectuals, middle income people and youth. The working class, which includes a lot of people from other parts of Spain, has not favored independence. Turull said the independistas focus on the lack of democracy in Spain, not immediate economic issues.

Turull said Catalans are tired of having their progressive laws overruled by Madrid. “A small country is easier to have a socially progressive majority,” he said. “Look at Iceland where they jailed their bankers after the 2008 crash.”

The left in Spain falls into two broad camps regarding the Catalan issue. Several smaller Catalan parties, such as the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) and the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), support independence. CUP argues that a left wing coalition can actually win power in an independent Catalonia while it could not in Spain.

On a national level, the leftist Podemos and the Communist Party of the People’s of Spain support self determination, including the right of Catalans to hold free elections on independence. They urged a vote against independence, however, and encourage peaceful dialogue to expand Catalan autonomy within a federal Spanish state.

Turull, for example, would favor greater autonomy within Spain if Podemos headed the government in Madrid. “Podemos would have convinced Catalans to remain in Spain,” he said. “Podemos in power means we would have had a chance for real change.”

But the left does not hold power in Madrid. Major Spanish institutions are solidly allied against independence and even oppose a referendum. Spain’s King Felipe VI, the Constitutional Court, PP and the Socialist Party oppose Catalonia’s right to self determination.

I think these central government policies are a guarantee of continued turmoil. Catalonia has the right of self determination, which can be compared to the right of divorce. Knowing you can separate allows the marriage to stay together on the basis of equality. Recognizing the right of divorce doesn’t mean every couple should actually separate. That same principle applies to independence movements.

An independent Catalonia would face tremendous problems as it came under attack economically and militarily by the central government. Europe would also seek to isolate the new country, fearing the example it would set for separatists in Scotland, Belgium and elsewhere. And, it’s not at all clear that an independent Catalan government led by nationalists, not leftists, would improve the lives of ordinary people. However, that’s a decision for Catalans to decide.

The left and independence forces plan to make the Dec. 21 parliamentary elections into a new referendum on independence by scoring a victory for their parties. I think the independence forces will respect the vote if they lose. I seriously doubt that the central authorities will do the same.

“The only thing I want is a fair referendum,” said Turull. “If the majority votes for union, then we stay in Spain. But if we vote for independence, we will become independent. That’s democracy.”

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column “Foreign Correspondent” appears every two weeks in 48 Hills. His home page is; follow him on Twitter @ReeseErlich or on Facebook, Reese Erlich foreign correspondent.

Foreign Correspondent: Make Saudi Arabia great again!

I stood in front of a mosque in the city of Qatif, Saudi Arabia, interviewing people for a story. Suddenly, two city police cars pulled up. Several minutes later plain clothes officers from the secret police began questioning me.

I had entered the country with a journalist visa, but committed the grave crime of practicing journalism without official permission. All interviews, even with ordinary people, had to be cleared in advance.

I was told not to leave my hotel and exited the country soon thereafter. I was, however, able to report on the brutal repression of Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia, who had been demonstrating against the government since the beginning of the Arab Spring.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is of the most repressive regimes in the world, and of course, a close US ally. The Kingdom is back in the news because it’s leader, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS for short), has arrested more than 200 of his royal cousins and businessmen on corruption charges.

Lebanon has suffered from the Syrian civil war next door. Here a house in Hermel, Lebanon, was destroyed by rockets fired by Saudi backed rebel groups. Photo by Reese Erlich

In a truly Saudi twist, those multi millionaires are jailed at a Ritz Carlton in Riyadh seized by the government for the occasion. Some faced the indignity of sleeping on mats in the lobby.

Some media and the Trump administration portray MBS as a reformer cracking down on corruption and the reactionary religious establishment. The Cairo Review, for example, wrote, “The crown prince has moved quickly to confirm his liberal progressive credentials…. [H]e sought to float 5 percent of the Saudi Aramco shares (dubbed the biggest IPO in history), allowed women to drive, tolerated the reopening of cinemas, has plans for a tourism industry, and reigned in the powers of the religious police.”

Notice the conflation of political liberties with “liberalization” of the state owned oil company, Aramco. Somehow, the achievement of political freedoms must include foreign bankers making super profits on an IPO (initial public offering).

Madawi Al-Rasheed , a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre, London School of Economics, told me MBS is no reformer. He’s “more like an autocrat who employs public relations and management consultants to package the worst changes as historical reform,” she said. “He is desperate to attract foreign investors who should not rush to save his throne and risk losing all their investment.”

The crown prince’s anti-corruption campaign is a phony. He arrests his political enemies while his corrupt cronies remain untouched.

“Autocrats use populist policies to gain popularity, and MBS is no exception,” Al-Rasheed added. “What we have seen is consolidation of military, political and financial power rather than anti-corruption.”

In foreign policy MBS is equally reactionary. He’s trying to ratchet up hostility towards Iran to cover up multiple regional failures. The KSA is bogged down in a war in Yemen and its efforts to isolate Qatar have failed miserably.

Since 2012 the KSA backed al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria, as I exposed well before it was acknowledged in the US.

Those extremists have lost the civil war, and the Saudis lost influence along with them.

And then there’s Lebanon. In early November, MBS summoned Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Riyadh. Hariri and his political party have long depended on Saudi royals for financial backing. But on this trip, instead of a red carpet befitting the prime minister, Saudi guards confiscated the cell phones of Hariri and his body guards.

They were held incommunicado until Hariri appeared on TV in Riyadh to resign his post. He blamed Iran and Hezbollah for creating a crisis in the region. Many Lebanese thought Hariri had been forced to do Saudi bidding.

“Hariri is not arrested but he was given a political ultimatum,” Elie El-Hindy told me. He is an associate professor of International Relations at Notre Dame University in Lebanon. Hariri had to take a harder line against Iranian-backed Hezbollah “or bid farewell to any Saudi Arabian political, financial or other kind of support.”

Hezbollah is both an armed militia and political party that leads the elected, coalition government in Lebanon. If Hariri’s resignation stands, then it would break up that coalition. Saudi Arabia could claim the Lebanese government is not legitimate, a mere tool of Hezbollah and Iran. That would set the stage for a new military conflict.  

MBS has forged close relations with the Trump administration. The Saudis and Israelis enthusiastically welcomed Trump’s election in 2016. Presidential son in law and top advisor Jared Kushner has visited the Kingdom three times this year.

Politically, MBS and Trump have a lot in common. They both have authoritarian proclivities, they distrust minorities and women, and they blame Iran for all the problems in the Middle East.

For example, both blame Iran for the war in Yemen. They argue that Iran is arming and directing the Houthi rebels. Both the Obama and Trump administrations fully backed the KSA and have sent troops to Yemen in yet another undeclared US war.

In fact Saudi Arabia started the war by invading the southern part of Yemen in 2015, expecting a quick victory. The Saudis intentionally bomb civilians in an effort to weaken Houthi morale. More than 5000 Yeminis have died and 8,000 are injured. Cholera has spread throughout the country. Nearly 19 million face a humanitarian catastrophe because of hunger and lack of health care. The KSA spends billions per month on a war that has no end in sight.

Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA official who is now a fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Securities Studies, told me Iran did not initiate the Yemen War; it does not control the Houthis. That’s just an excuse used by the Saudis and United Arab Emirates, the other country occupying Yemen.

“The Iranian aid to the Houthis is tiny compared to the Saudi and UAE military effort, said Pillar. “The war has had cataclysmic consequences.”

Both the US and Saudi Arabia also claim that Iran is trying to create a “land bridge” stretching from Iran, through Iraq and Syria to the Lebanese coast. That would enable Iran to supply Hezbollah with weapons for its fight against Israel.

Pillar snorted that he’s tired of hearing this phony argument. He noted that Hezbollah has gained strength over the past 30 years without any land bridge.

“Iran will have access to Lebanon, but it doesn’t need a land corridor,” he said. “They can ship by air.”

I worry that MBS’s latest moves are part of a broader plan to encourage Israel to attack Lebanon. Hezbollah has emerged on the winning side in Syria, having backed President Bashar al Assad.

A political analyst with the Israeli daily Haaretz wrote the Saudis are trying to “move the battlefield with Iran from Syria to Lebanon, trying to get Israel to do Saudi Arabia’s dirty work.”

There’s a fierce debate within Israeli ruling circles as to whether and when to attack Lebanon. Israel already lost a war with Hezbollah in 2006. Hezbollah sank an Israeli naval ship and fired missiles into northern Israel. Today Hezbollah has a lot more missiles and troops battle hardened in Syria.

For the moment, Israeli officials are talking down the prospects for a full scale attack on Lebanon. But there’s no question that MBS machinations are causing severe tensions in the region.

As former CIA analyst Pillar told me, “The odds of war are greater now than a few months ago.”

If you want to see corruption and political chicanery American style, keep your eyes on former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. We already know that Flynn was on the Turkish payroll, and he tried to cut US support for Syrian Kurds, which reflected Turkish policy. Now the special counsel’s office has leaked Flynn’s possible connection to a $15 million plot to kidnap a prominent opponent of the Turkish government living in Pennsylvania and deliver him to Turkey. If pursued by the special counsel, the Flynn story will reveal a lot about Washington’s real inner workings.

Read more Foreign Correspondent installments here. 

Foreign Correspondent: US sells out the Kurds — again

A Kurdish horseman. Photo by Reese Erlich

I stood at a border crossing as thousands of Yazidis and other refugees fled ISIS attacks on Mosul and nearby cities. Tens of thousands of refugees flooded into the Kurdish Region of Iraq as Kurdish relief workers greeted them with water and food.

It was August 2014, and I was there on assignment as a freelance correspondent. The Obama administration had started bombing northern Iraq just a few days earlier. The explanation given at the time, now long forgotten, was the US would bomb for a limited time to protect the Kurdish capital of Erbil and stop the attacks on Yazidis.

A Kurdish horseman. Photo by Reese Erlich

Those goals were accomplished within a matter of weeks as the ISIS offensive stopped. But the bombing continues to this day. The US eventually sent 5,000 troops to Iraq and then 1,500 troops to Syria.

Neither the Obama nor Trump administrations have made a convincing argument on the constitutionally of these new wars. They cite a Congressional resolution passed after 9/11 calling on the US to pursue Al Qaeda and the Taliban. ISIS and other groups the US is fighting are not Al Qaeda or the Taliban, and in fact, didn’t exist in 2011.

But the events of 2014 did cement closer ties between the US and Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) led by President Masoud Barzani. The Iraqi Army had collapsed in the face of the ISIS offensive. The Kurdish armed forces, known as peshmerga, were the only reliable Iraqi fighters allied with the US in 2014. The peshmerga moved into the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other disputed areas, expanding the Kurdish Region by 40% with the tacit approval of the US.

“We now genuinely know the United States supports us,” said Fuad Hussein at the time. He was Barzani’s chief of staff.

Fast forward to today. ISIS is near military defeat. The Kurds had long sought independence from Iraq, and Barzani thinks it’s payback time. In September he held an independence referendum and 92% voted to secede.

Then all hell broke loose.

Washington, Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad all opposed the referendum. The Iraqi Army, with US support, retook Kirkuk and other disputed areas. Overnight the KRG lost 25% of its oil revenues. The regional government was already three months behind in paying its employees, and the economic crisis got worse.

“I was really stunned,” Yerevan Adham told me. We met when he was a journalist in Kurdistan and he’s now a research fellow at the Middle East Research Institute in Washington. “How can you do this (hold a referendum) without a Plan B?”

The chaos continued. On Nov. 1 President Barzani resigned. But thugs from his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) burned numerous opposition party offices, and beat up parliamentarians and opposition media, sending one reporter to hospital.

Adham says Kurds blame both the US and Iran. Trump made a serious mistake by provoking Iran, he said. Trump decertified the Iran nuclear deal and added new sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Adham said a top IRGC commander Qassem Soulimani “became very bold” and used Iranian backed Iraqi militias to threaten Kurdistan.

“The militias showed a middle finger to Trump,” said Adham.

Kurds have bitter memories of a previous US betrayal summed up in just two words: Henry Kissinger. In the early 1970s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran and Saddam Hussein of Iraq disputed control of the waterway running between their countries. The US and the Shah backed a Kurdish insurgency against Iraq as a means to pressure Saddam.

But then in 1975 Kissinger helped negotiate a settlement of the issue and gave Saddam a green light to attack the Kurds. Barzani and other Kurdish leaders had just hours to flee for their lives. Some 200,000 Kurds escaped into Iran and 40,000 were forcibly repatriated.

Kissinger famously said, “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.” Somehow those “interests” always favor big corporations, not oppressed people. The US seeks domination of the Middle East for its oil, strategic military bases and as part of geopolitical competition with enemies du jour. (Today it’s Russia, Iran and China.)

What Kissinger’s phrase really means is that the US will ally with people one day and stab them in the back the next.

I frequently mention this when speaking to Kurdish groups in the US and in conversations in the Kurdish Region. Everyone used to assure me that those times are long gone. The US would never double cross the Kurds again, they argued.

Until last month.

“Henry Kissinger betrayed the Kurds, and I can smell the same scenario in 2017,” Professor Nabaz Nawzad told me. He’s a lecturer at the Lebanese French University in Erbil. “We believed the US would protect us from any aggression by Iraq, Turkey and Iran. But we were wrong.”

Some 30 million Kurds live in the Middle East, the world’s largest nationality without a nation. They live in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. The colonial powers denied the Kurds nationhood after World War I. And the desire for nationhood remains strong to this day.

Such national sentiments are one thing, but the practicality of independence is quite another. There is no significant independence movement among Kurds in Iran. The leading Kurdish party in Turkey and Syria, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), calls for autonomy, not independence.

The Iraqi Kurds have progressed the furthest towards independence by controlling their own oil production, maintaining their own army and controlling their borders. But the KRG has hardly been a sparkling beacon for self governance.

President Barzani was supposed to leave office in 2013 but extended his rule without holding new elections. Until last week, the Parliament hadn’t held a substantive meeting for two years because Barzani’s KDP wouldn’t allow opposition leaders to enter Erbil where the parliament building is located. Even with President Barzani’s resignation, his nephew remains Prime Minister and his son is head of the Kurdish intelligence agency.

Kurds had hoped the KRG would be different from other governments in the region. But corruption and violations of democratic norms prevail. “Democracy is in retreat in Kurdistan,” said research fellow Adham.

The decision to hold an independence referendum backfired horribly. Unfortunately, the Kurdish people will pay a steep price economically and politically. Neither the US, Russia nor any other power will bail them out.

It’s time for Kurds to rely on their own resources and break from reliance on US. Remember the words of Mustafa Barzani, father of the current president. “We do not want to be anybody’s pawns. We are an ancient people. We want sarbasti — freedom.”

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column on international affairs appears every two weeks in 48 Hills. The revised and updated edition of his book The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of US and Policy and the Mideast Crisis, will be published in 2018.

His home page is; follow him on Twitter @ReeseErlich or on Facebook, Reese Erlich foreign correspondent.