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 www.reeseerlich.com; 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 www.reeseerlich.com; follow him on Twitter @ReeseErlich or on Facebook, Reese Erlich foreign correspondent.

Foreign Correspondent: Trump moves encourage Iranian hardliners

In Washington DC, Trump’s moves against the Iran nuclear agreement are seen as getting tough on a dangerous enemy. In Iran, they are seen as the first steps towards another war in the Mideast.

Last week, Trump refused to certify the nuclear agreement. Under that accord Iran has agreed to stringent inspections of its nuclear facilities in return for lifting of economic sanctions.

Friday prayers in Tehran generally attract political hardliners, who have become emboldened by Trump’s belligerence. Photo by Reese Erlich

Trump encouraged Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran, which could violate the accord and lead to serious military escalation in the region.

In email and phone interviews with me, Iranians across the political spectrum expressed outrage at Trump’s escalating attacks on their country.

“For the last year our economy has improved,” said one Iran-Iraq War veteran who supports centrist President Hassan Rouhani. He and others interviewed preferred not to use their names in talking to a western reporter. “If the US imposes new sanctions, even though we’ve lived up to all the terms of the agreement, that’s an act of war. If the US forces war on us, we will fight back very hard.”

In another provocative action, the Trump administration imposed new sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The IRGC supports groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and various militias in Syria and Iraq. But most Iranians argue that the IRGC defends the country from outside invaders and promotes Iranian interests abroad.

The war vet asked, “How would Americans feel if Iran described the 181st Airborne as a terrorist group and imposed sanctions on their leaders?”

So far both the IRGC and US troops have fought ISIS in Syria and Iraq without clashing. Hardline Iranian leaders say that could change.

IRGC Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari warned that if the US labeled the IRGC a terrorist organization, “the Guards will also consider the American military all over the world, especially the Middle East, as equal to Daesh [ISIS].”

In 2015, the US, Iran, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany agreed to the nuclear accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Contrary to popular rhetoric in Washington, Iran made major concessions.

Iran agreed to the “world’s most robust” nuclear inspections, according to the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency head Yukiya Amano. International inspectors are now tracking Iran’s uranium mining, fuel enrichment, use of fuel in nuclear power plants and medical research, and disposal of waste. If Iran diverts uranium for military purposes, the IAEA will find out.

Iran engages in plenty of nefarious activities abroad and repression at home. So does the Trump administration, I might point out. But those issues weren’t up for discussion as part of the nuclear agreement. The JCPOA only took up the nuclear issue and thus removed a major, potential source of war. Iran has agreed never to develop nuclear weapons and to allow intrusive international inspections in perpetuity.

In reality Iran has no nuclear bomb just as Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction at the time of the 2003 US invasion. Washington falsified both issues in order to justify continued US hegemony in the oil rich and geopolitically important region.

So right-wing Republicans and Democratic Party hawks never accepted the JCPOA. Now Trump is seeking to scuttle the accord as part of a major anti-Iran offensive. The Trump administration equates Shia Muslim Iran with the Sunni extremist group ISIS.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran,” CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in a speech, “is Iran’s version of what the caliphate ought to look like under the control of an Ayatollah and … the IRGC.”

But most experts, especially those outside the US, disagree with that view. “To blame Iran for terrorism in the region is misleading at best,” wrote Michael Axworthy, head of the Iran section at the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office between 1998–2000. “Most of the Islamic terrorism worldwide, is inspired by extreme versions of Sunni Islam, not by the Shi‘a Islam of the Iranian regime.”

So far Rouhani has responded very carefully to Trump administration provocations, waiting to see what actions Congress may take. But Iran issued a clear warning.

Iran “will not be the first to withdraw from the deal,” read an official statement from the Rouhani administration. “But if its rights are not respected, it will stop implementing all its commitments and will resume its peaceful nuclear program without any restrictions.”

Trump claims to support the Iranian people against their repressive government. But US belligerence has had the opposite effect. Iranians are rallying behind their government, and Trump has emboldened Iran’s hardline conservatives, known as principalists.

“The principalists have reasserted their power,” an Iranian academic told me. “They warned the country that you can’t trust the United States. And Trump proved them right.”

A liberal-minded rug merchant friend echoed a similar sentiment. He frequently interacts with Europeans and visitors from the Middle East and opposes the principalists. “Who will believe the US now?” he said. “What will come next from the crazy man in the White House?”

Foreign Correspondent, 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.