eyes on the U.S.

America's Police, Friend And Sniper

As disturbing as it is, what's happening in Ferguson, Missouri, is simply evidence of American police becoming increasingly militarized, a trend that's been building for years.

Police await protesters in Ferguson on Aug. 13.
Police await protesters in Ferguson on Aug. 13.
Antonie Rietzschel

MUNICH — The images showing a wall of armed, helmet-wearing men in camouflage uniforms look like something from a war zone. A sharpshooter sits on an armored vehicle, gun at the ready, looking through the rifle scope as if he were about to fire.

But the photos weren't taken in Afghanistan or Iraq, although comparisons of images taken in both places have an uncanny similarity. They were taken in Ferguson, the small Missouri town that, for all the wrong reasons, the world is watching. The men aren't American soldiers, but officers for the local police force.

Since last Saturday's police killing of 18-year-old black teen Michael Brown, who was unarmed and repeatedly shot, there have been daily demonstrations in Ferguson. People have lost faith in the police, who in turn feel threatened and are arming up. Heavily armed police have unleashed tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful protesters.

While the scenes playing out there are disturbing, they are actually the manifestation of a trend that has been building for years in the United States. Since 9/11 and the fight against terror that it engendered, American police have become increasingly militarized, both in terms of their training and their equipment.

Rise of the Warrior Cop, a book by American journalist Radley Balko, tackles this very subject. In a Wall Street Journal essay, he estimates that between 2002 and 2011 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) distributed $35 billion of equipment to federal police and local police stations.

Add to that the support of the Pentagon. The police in Ferguson are part of Program 1033, through which military equipment can be acquired. And not just protective gear or small arms, either. The list of available items includes heavily armored vehicles of the sort used in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also assault weapons. In 2013 alone, the program distributed equipment worth $500 million to the police.

That fuels some bizarre situations. The city of Fargo, North Dakota, where there are fewer than two murders per year, owns an armored vehicle with a gun turret. In Keene, New Hampshire, $286,000 was spent on a BearCat armored vehicle. Between 1999 and 2012, there were three homicides in Keene. The local police chief said that the BearCat was mainly for use at major events — such as the Pumpkin Festival.

Meanwhile, many police stations not only have heavy weaponry but also SWAT teams. These special forces originally were to be used in life-threatening operations such as shootings or hostage-takings. In the mid-1980s, 80% of towns with populations of 50,000 inhabitants had SWAT teams, but by 2007 over 80% of towns with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 had such a team.

In 1980 SWAT teams across the United States were called in for 3,000 operations. That has since become 50,000, as researcher Peter Kraska tells The Economist. They are dispatched to make arrests or break up illegal poker games. In 2010, a SWAT team burst into a bar that was supposedly serving alcohol to minors. The special has become routine. SWAT teams have also been called in during the Ferguson protests.

Balko writes that operations involving the heavily armed SWAT teams often end with bloodshed. He himself has counted 50 cases in which innocent people died. Some of these people were bystanders, some were police that suspects thought were burglars.

Of the current situation in Ferguson, Balko says, "The police no longer see people as citizens with rights. They see them as a threat."

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020


Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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