icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Youtube
UN Strengthens Peacekeeping Despite U.S. Scepticism
UN Strengthens Peacekeeping Despite U.S. Scepticism
The Coronavirus Crisis is a Diplomatic Opportunity for the United States and Iran
The Coronavirus Crisis is a Diplomatic Opportunity for the United States and Iran
UN peacekeepers (UNIFIL) patrol the border with Israel near the village of Kfar Kila, Lebanon 04 December 2018. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho
Q&A / Global

UN Strengthens Peacekeeping Despite U.S. Scepticism

This Friday, the UN hosts the 2019 Peacekeeping Ministerial Conference, an opportunity for politicians and diplomats to fill gaps in blue helmet missions. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s UN Director Richard Gowan previews the agenda.

What is the point of the conference?

This is the latest edition of a series of conferences that former U.S. President Barack Obama kicked off with other leaders at the UN General Assembly in 2015. Vice President Joe Biden had chaired a trial run the previous year. The basic idea is to get senior figures together to pledge military units, or other forms of help like training, to UN Peacekeeping.

This process was the Obama administration’s response to major gaps in the UN’s forces revealed by crises such as the collapse of South Sudan in 2013. The president used his convening power to get other leaders to pledge high-grade units from advanced militaries that the UN was unlikely to attract otherwise.

The initiative, which included defence minister-level talks in the UK and Canada in 2016 and 2017, has worked quite well. The British sent medics to work with the UN in South Sudan, Portuguese special forces have deployed to the Central African Republic (CAR), and a number of NATO and EU members have sent air assets and intelligence specialists to Mali. Well-established UN contributors, such as Rwanda, have also upgraded the range of forces and types of units – like helicopters – that they offer the UN.

We are likely to see some additional steps in that direction this week. This year’s conference is not quite as high-powered as some of the earlier ones. One hundred and twenty countries will participate, but only half are sending ministers. Nonetheless, there are still countries that want to get involved in blue helmet operations. Mexico, for example, will make its first concrete pledge of a fully-fledged peacekeeping unit this week.

What sort of resources do peacekeepers need?

While peacekeepers often get stereotyped as shambolic and ill-disciplined, the overall picture is actually rather better. Only a limited number of troop contributors – mainly under-resourced African militaries – now consistently deploy ill-equipped or untrained contingents.

These ministerial meetings have helped raise the overall standard of forces. More broadly, the UN is able to be somewhat selective about which troops to deploy, as the total number of peacekeepers worldwide has dropped in recent years. When President Obama hosted his peacekeeping summit in 2015, the organisation was responsible for 105,000 soldiers and police officers worldwide, and UN officials had to scramble to find even quite basic infantry battalions to meet this level of demand. That figure has dropped to 88,000 as missions in places where they are no longer needed, like those in Liberia and Haiti, have closed down. This has allowed the UN to reject particularly ill-prepared contingents. The global number of peacekeepers is likely to drop further – the Security Council is slowly winding down its mission in Darfur, which has been a huge drain on the UN and is now well past its prime.

UN officials also want to use this opportunity to push governments to deploy more female troops and police as peacekeepers.

I facilitated a warm-up conference for this week’s meeting focusing on training peacekeepers in Uruguay last December, and it was striking that major UN troop contributors are working hard to standardise and upgrade deployment systems so that their troops will be attractive candidates for UN missions (a useful source of income for some militaries).

Nonetheless, the UN still has difficulties finding enough troops and military equipment for especially risky missions. Mali, where over 120 personnel have been killed in hostile acts by jihadist insurgents, is the most pressing case. UN officials hope that ministers attending this week’s conference will pledge help on problems like countering roadside bombs for the Mali force. They also need helicopters there, but these aircrafts are perennially difficult to find, and governments often place burdensome caveats on how these costly assets can be used.

UN officials also want to use this opportunity to push governments to deploy more female troops and police as peacekeepers. The UN Secretariat would like to double the number of women in its military and police units. The current figure is under 5 per cent. Defence officials – including Western ones – gripe that this request is unreasonable given the overall lack of women in their forces. But militaries including the Ethiopians, Rwandans, Ghanaians and Tanzanians have made good progress against the UN’s target. Angelina Jolie will be at the UN on Friday to encourage the laggards to do better.

Is the U.S. still a fan of the process?

The Trump administration’s attitude to this Obama legacy initiative is ambiguous. The U.S. is still one of the formal co-conveners of the process. Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan represented Washington at the last meeting in the series in Canada (and his boss, then-Secretary James Mattis, only declined to attend that summit for scheduling reasons). This Friday, the senior American representative will be the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, David Hale. He is a highly experienced diplomat, but it is clear that the U.S. interest in the process is down.

That fits with the administration’s broader and growing scepticism toward UN peace operations. The U.S. has been pushing hard for budget cuts to blue helmet missions since President Trump took office. Washington is now reportedly preparing to call for some hefty reductions to the size and budget of the UN mission in Mali, despite its struggle for security.

It is not clear whether Washington’s dislike for peacekeeping is motivated by budgetary concerns, principled aversion for multilateralism or practical doubts about what the UN can achieve – or all three at once. It is fair to point out that, while the Obama initiative may have motivated NATO members to send high-grade units to Mali and South Sudan, neither is close to stable. National Security Advisor John Bolton gave a harsh speech criticising “unproductive” and open-ended UN missions in Africa in December.

If the U.S. is retreating from this process, will other powers replace it?

European countries, which have a direct security interest in the UN managing threats in places like Mali and Lebanon, are taking this conference reasonably seriously. France has pressed its European allies to send personnel to Mali, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his German counterpart Heiko Maas will be in New York. The UK is sending a comparatively junior minister, but London is a little busy with other political concerns right now. British officials thought that their recent deployment in South Sudan was good operational experience, and would like to make another significant contribution to the UN fairly soon.

If Washington’s mounting scepticism toward UN peace operations creates a vacuum, it should not be surprised to see others start to fill it.

But as so often happens when the U.S. steps back from multilateral institutions, eyes will turn to China this week. There are currently 2,500 peacekeepers from the People’s Liberation Army on UN missions, which is 1,000 more than deployments by all the other permanent Security Council members combined. Beijing is not sending a top political figure to this week’s meeting, and may not make any big new pledges. But back in 2015, President Xi Jinping promised to deploy up to 8,000 new troops on UN missions. Chinese and UN officials have taken some time to identify and assess suitable additional units, but this technical process is now largely complete. There is a good chance that the number of Chinese peacekeepers will expand quite considerably in the coming years, and Beijing has signaled that it wants senior UN posts and envoy-ships in recognition of this investment.

That could make the current U.S. administration, which has repeatedly raised concerns about China’s rising influence in international institutions in recent months, uncomfortable.

But if Washington’s mounting scepticism toward UN peace operations creates a vacuum, it should not be surprised to see others start to fill it.

The Coronavirus Crisis is a Diplomatic Opportunity for the United States and Iran

Originally published in Foreign Policy

Washington and Tehran could use the public health emergency to show goodwill, dial down tensions while saving face, and avoid a dangerous confrontation.

If Iran’s leaders thought things couldn’t get worse, they were wrong. The country faces three simultaneous crises: a public health emergency that is worsening by the hour, tensions with the United States that have once again grown in the past few days, and an economic picture that could go from troubled to dire in a matter of months.

The confluence of a coronavirus pandemic, security threats, and financial troubles has deepened the political system’s legitimacy crisis in the wake of last month’s parliamentary elections that saw the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history. Washington might view this as a validation of its so-called maximum pressure strategy against Tehran, but if it fails to capitalize on this moment to de-escalate tensions and lay the groundwork for a mutually beneficial diplomatic settlement, the leadership in Tehran is likely to become more aggressive in the region, increasing the risk of a conflict that neither side appears to want.

Since the dramatic escalations of late 2019 and early 2020, which culminated in the killing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qassem Suleimani and Iranian missile strikes on Iraqi bases hosting U.S. forces, both Iran and the United States appeared content to return to their respective corners.

But there has been a steady stream of incidents in Iraq, with at least seven attacks near U.S. diplomatic facilities inside Baghdad’s Green Zone and U.S. military installations in Iraq throughout January and February. These attacks spiked on March 11 following a barrage of rockets that killed three members of the U.S.-led coalition, including two Americans, and injured more than a dozen others at an Iraqi army base, Camp Taji, north of Baghdad.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper subsequently assessed that “Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups” were responsible. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned ­that “those responsible must be held accountable.” A day later, the United States retaliated against an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia in Iraq, which in turn fired more rockets into Camp Taji on March 14 and again on March 17.

The impact of the rapidly spreading disease and collapse in oil prices will likely present almost unprecedented challenges to an economy that is already beset by government mismanagement and U.S. sanctions.

This latest moment of peril is playing out against the backdrop of a dramatic COVID-19 outbreak in Iran, which has the third-highest number of confirmed cases and fatalities anywhere in the world. The Iranian government was slow in responding to the outbreak; and when it finally realized its scale and scope, Tehran was hampered by shortages caused by sanctions. Moreover, the government has kept a worryingly tight grip on the information flow to save face, prompting fears that the death toll—currently listed as 988—is probably much higher than the official figures suggest.

With Tehran’s initial response being dismissive of the risks of the virus’s spread and slow to mobilize against it, the government is now pleading for international assistance. Having already scored several calamitous own goals in recent months—raising fuel prices with little warning in November 2019, then violently suppressing subsequent protests, and in January downing a Ukrainian civilian airliner in the apparent belief it was an incoming U.S. missile—the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis could increase the population’s sense that its leadership is incompetent.

Meanwhile, the impact of the rapidly spreading disease and collapse in oil prices will likely present almost unprecedented challenges to an economy that is already beset by government mismanagement and under siege from U.S. sanctions.

One Iranian official calculated a drop of 18 percent in trade as a result of the pandemic—and that was before Iraq, a key regional trade partner, announced a full closure of the two countries’ common land borders and the price of crude tumbled below $30 per barrel. (While Iran’s exports have been blocked by the United States since April 2019, it has continued to make sales to China, albeit at sharply reduced levels.) The combination of reduced regional trade, evaporation of remaining oil revenue, and COVID-19’s impact on domestic business could prove catastrophic.

But that doesn’t mean that Tehran will bow to U.S. pressure and back down. Indeed, since May 2019, when the Iranian government chose to counter U.S. maximum pressure with a blend of nuclear and regional provocations, the system’s hard-liners have contended that high-risk brinkmanship yields greater dividends than restraint.

Feeling besieged and with no obvious diplomatic exit ramp, Iran might conclude that only a confrontation with the United States might change a trajectory that’s heading in a very dangerous direction.

The coronavirus outbreak has now put more pressure on the leadership’s calculus. Feeling besieged and with no obvious diplomatic exit ramp, Iran might conclude that only a confrontation with the United States might change a trajectory that’s heading in a very dangerous direction. This is also the view of Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, who told Congress on March 10 that the outbreak “probably makes them, in terms of decision-making, more dangerous rather than less dangerous.”

With U.S. President Donald Trump focused on the domestic economic and electoral effects of the coronavirus and the Iranian leadership highly reluctant to display any weakness to the United States, neither side is likely in the mood to engage the other.

That would be a missed opportunity. Indeed, both Washington and Tehran have floated ideas that, if acted upon, could break the current vicious cycle. Pompeo has urged the Iranian government—which furloughed tens of thousands of convicts due to fears of an epidemic in prisons—to free U.S. prisoners and other dual and foreign nationals on humanitarian grounds. The death of any of those inmates from COVID-19 would be a stain Iran might find hard to erase.

Conversely, Iran has asked the International Monetary Fund for emergency funding and a substantial list of essential equipment ranging from gloves and masks to portable respiration and X-ray machines. If the Trump administration stands in the way of such basic needs—by voting against an IMF loan to Iran—the United States would find it hard to overcome the impression that it had acted inhumanely.

The most logical and mutually beneficial outcome would be a two-phased humanitarian de-escalation.

The most logical and mutually beneficial outcome would be a two-phased humanitarian de-escalation. Iran would need to first agree to furlough all detained foreigners as the U.S. facilitates the transfer of medicine and medical equipment Iran needs to contain the outbreak and save lives without any sanctions-related delays.

In the second phase, the U.S. government could agree not to block the IMF loan to Iran while Tehran freezes its nuclear escalation and reins in its allied groups in Iraq, preventing any further attacks on U.S. forces and assets. This phase could also comprise another prisoner swap, either on par with the one-for-one exchange that happened back in December or, even better, a broader exchange of prisoners. This would be a win-win: putting tensions with Iran on ice, providing Trump with another success in his efforts to free Americans detained abroad, and providing Tehran with some economic reprieve and the means to save lives at home.

Since 2018, when the Trump administration pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran, Washington and Tehran have been on a collision course pitting unrealistic U.S. demands against Iranian inflexibility. For either side to let a possible diplomatic off-ramp pass by would mean that a dangerous and deadly situation might again take a turn for the worse.

Contributors

President & CEO
Rob_Malley
Project Director, Iran
AliVaez