Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Busy Day for Israeli Extremists

As Washington demurely casts its eyes to the side, Israel’s campaign of violence against the Palestinians is intensifying. Whether or not Israel’s barbarism constitutes a model of Washington’s overall attitude toward the world’s Muslim people is a question Americans need to start contemplating.

Israeli Violence.

Military Terrorism. Today, June 30, Israeli naval vessels again fired on Palestinian fishing boats. Despite the diplomatic efforts of Hamas to reach an accommodation with the Israeli occupiers, Israel continues to punish the population of Gaza by denying it food; the penalty for defying Israel’s limitations is military attack.

Piracy. In a particularly egregious move that at once served to humiliate the U.S. by its disrespect toward a former U.S. congresswoman and to slap the world community in the face by showing its utter contempt for humanitarian concerns, Israeli naval vessels highjacked the “Spirit of Humanity” on its way to provide desperately needed supplies to Gaza, reportedly in international waters. This import of this event, carefully downplayed by biased American media, goes far beyond the token supplies of food and medicine being withheld from needy Gazans. Once more, the extremists of the region have been taught that in the end, neither principles of human decency nor concerns for international law count in the eyes of Washington, a dangerous lesson, given the rising power of Iran’s military-intelligence elite and of the Taliban.

Israeli Terrorism. The settler-led and Israeli Army-protected campaign of terror against Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank continued with another attack also on June 30. If the definition of terrorism is actions against non-combattants that inspire terror, this was terrorism for sure.

Israel Insults Washington.

Israel has not only rejected Obama’s pleas to halt illegal settlements but has taken new steps to enhance its illegal campaign to populate the conquered territories exactly at the moment Defense Minister Barak visits the U.S.—in a calculated insult to apparently helpless Obama. Washington has not explained why it would countenance even discussing this issue of international law with the Israeli minister of war, rather than a qualified legal team.

Israeli media have made no bones about the crux of the disagreement between Israel and the West, noting that extremists in the regime see no point in interfering with settlement in land that Israel plans to steal from the Palestinians anyway:

Lieberman, together with ministers Benny Begin and Moshe Ya'alon of the Likud, said Israel should not compromise the future of settlements destined to remain within its borders.


Monday, June 29, 2009

Elite Maneuverings in Iran Intensify

With hardliners blaming everything on foreigners (reminiscent of Americans after 9/11 expressing innocent outrage about “terrorism out of the blue” as though American foreign policy had had nothing to do with it), the regime has nevertheless clearly opened negotiations with the opposition. The maneuverings at the top are also widening, now including Majlis and former president Khatami.

The police have ominously announced the arrest of “armed imposters” posing as Basij members in order to create trouble. If faked, the charges would symbolize the willingness of Ahmadinejad to go to any lengths to remain in office. If true, the charges would suggest that the situation is far more serious than apparent so far, raising the extremely serious possibility that Western agents are in fact trying to destabilize the country. Either way, this intensifies the crisis.

In a further sign of hardline intransigence, Intelligence Minister Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei issued a blatantly biased and anti-democratic prejudgement yesterday, when he stated: "I announce that no organized rigging which could affect the result of the election has taken place."

In contrast and seemingly ignoring the Intel chief, the Guardian Council has ordered random public recounts. According to the Guardian Council’s spokesman, Abbas-Ali Kadkhodaei:

The order has been made following the hesitation of representatives of [the defeated presidential candidate] Mir-Hossein Mousavi and an ineffective joint meeting between certain members of the special committee of the Guardian Council and Mousavi.

The opposition has scored a victory in persuading the regime to conduct an investigation, though there is little likelihood of reaching a compromise soon since Mousavi has already rejected the partial recount. So far, Mousavi has been doing about as well as Gore after the Florida scandal and, despite somewhat shrill defensiveness of Ahmadinejad supporters like Ejei, the effort to reach a compromise remains evident:

  • According to Press TV, “Members of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission are scheduled to meet senior clerics Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi and Ayatollah Morteza Moqtadayi in Qom on Monday to address the issue of turmoil in the country over the election results.”

  • In addition, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, Head of Iran's Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, announced that the commission had met with ex-president Mohammad Khatami to discuss the crisis.

  • MP Heshmatollah Falahatpishe called on the Guardian Council to show no leniency and clearly announce any election fraud."

It is noteworthy that Makarem-Shirazi is the ayatollah who on Thursday called for “national reconciliation.” With speaker Larijani sidelined on a curiously-timed trip to Algeria, it was unclear how actively Majlis (Parliament) would get involved in the crisis. For the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission to be meeting with senior clerics nicely symbolizes the critical nature of the ruling alliance of conservative clergy and the national security elite and positions Majlis to push for a compromise. The announcement that the commission had already met with Khatami, who stepped aside in favor of Mousavi would seem to strengthen Mousavi’s position both by suggesting the commission is open to opposition pleas and by raising the visibility of the so-far quiet symbol of elite moderation. True to his reputation, Khatami said, "We should make every effort to win back the trust of a certain segment of the society. We should all try to resolve the current problems so that the society moves toward peace"—a statement strikingly in contrast with the uncompromising attitude of Ejei. (Note, however, an alternative interpretation, namely, that the meeting with Khatami constitutes pressure on him to intervene on Ahmadinejad's side! Perhaps, but that would seem to indicate a significant degree of regime nervousness.) It was also interesting that the report added that the committee had already held meetings with Rafsanjani and Mousavi but is only “scheduled” to meet with Ahmadinejad. The stance that Larijani adopts when he returns to Iran will merit close attention.

Note: IRNA, the official Iranian news agency, has not, as far as I can determine, carried similar reports.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

President Ahmadinejad: We Accept Your Challenge!

Confident in victory that his confrontational course is the right one, Ahmadinejad has issued a clear challenge to Washington:

From now on we will take you to trial at every international forum.

Fair enough. Does Washington, where arrogance from the merest bureaucratic first-line manager all the way to where that proverbial buck stops is a way of life, have the maturity to respond to this in a professional manner?

Ahmadinejad went on to ask:

How is it possible that those who have blood on their hands are now talking about human rights and believe that they can harm the Islamic system with their hollow and satanic statements and their propaganda stunts against Iran’s clean and humane system?

The biased and self-serving phraseology notwithstanding, this seems a fair question, given that it refers to a nation that has yet to denounce the pernicious Bush-Cheney concept of “preventive war,” that pretends it cannot see the barbaric concentration camp Israel has created out of Gaza with the use of American arms, and where the mass media still proudly describe the destruction of Fallujah as a “victory.”

The truth is that the international misdeeds of Washington in recent years have vastly surpassed even the allegations by Iran’s Western enemies of international Iranian misdeeds. The truth is that every country should be “taking to trial at every international forum” the world’s last remaining superpower. It would be good for the health of that superpower and good for the safety of us all.

An unrestrained superpower and a bunch of lackeys is no way to develop a healthy international political system. We have all seen how rapidly the behavior of Washington officials, not to mention of the boys in uniform sent to do its bidding, declines when everything is going their way. America’s wise forefathers saw fit to create a government based on a system of checks and balances for a reason.

What goes for the U.S. goes for the international political system. Even if American behavior were perfect, simply because of the overwhelmingly excessive military power possessed by the American superpower, the rest of the world should constantly be taking it to task. I gratefully thank Ahmadinejad for so moderately suggesting that he will do so only at “every international forum,” a phrase suggesting that he (unlike Bush or Cheney) has finally accepted the value and legitimacy of international law and will work within its confines. Were this to turn out to be true and were Washington to develop the maturity to respond in kind—by challenging the Iranian regime also in international fora (rather than via threats, interference, funding of terrorists) to meet the highest standards of behavior--then the world would become a far better place, and the battle would be the greatest show on earth.

If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad thinks he is man enough to present to the global community a sustained and persuasive critique of America’s international behavior, I, for one, have no fear of that challenge. What I fear is the possibility that America’s politicians will respond by throwing another temper tantrum.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Moderates* Seize the Initiative

Khamenei seems to have been forced to backtrack, ceding the initiative somewhat to Rafsanjani, implicitly rejecting the hard line stand of extremists, and leaving Ahmadinejad in an embarrassing position. The election merits investigation after all.

Immediate Post-Election Reaction.

Shortly after the election, all three losing candidates claimed irregularities in the election totaling over 600. Personal adviser to Khamenei and Parliament Speaker Larijani charged the leadership with bias:

Iran's Parliament (Majlis) Speaker Ali Larijani suggests that some of the members in the Guardian Council have sided with a certain candidate in the June 12 presidential election.

Speaking live on the Islamic
Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) Channel 2 on Saturday, the speaker said that "a majority of people are of the opinion that the actual election results are different than what was officially announced."

"The opinion of this majority should be respected and a line should be drawn between them and rioters and miscreants," he was quoted as saying by Khabaronline -- a website affiliated with him.

In contrast, Khamenei described Ahmadinejad’s victory as “definitive” while President Ahmadinejad and his Interior Minister Sadeq Mahsouli “rejected any possibility of fraud.”

Last Three Days.

On Thursday, the Guardian Council, a 12-member senior governmental oversight group of clerics that serves the clergy by defining the limits of “democracy” allowed to the regular governmental bureaucracy (including the president and the parliament), announced that it would form a special committee to investigate the election.

On Saturday, Press TV reported that the Expediency Council, a body that advises senior leader Khamenei that is headed by ex-President Rafsanjani, called on “all to observe the law and resolve conflicts and disputes (concerning the election) through legal channels” and to “use this appropriate opportunity to submit their documents and evidence for a comprehensive and precise investigation.” Rafsanjani took a markedly softer line that Ayatollah Seyyed Ahmad Khatami took the day before. Note also Rafsanjani’s priceless “come on, guys, will you knock it off; we’re talking about the country’s future here” expression in the Press TV report.

In a move that fit so smoothly with Rafsanjani’s call for “legal channels” as to suggest prior coordination, Mousavi (pictured by Press TV as thoughtful and serious), called for, in the words of the report:

an independent and legal committee, which would be accepted by all presidential contenders and supported by senior clerics, would pursue and settle the issues that sparked protests after the June 12 presidential election.

Mousavi has now moved off the streets and is publicly negotiating through legal channels. How will Ahmadinejad manage to portray him as a dupe of the West now?

A more serious issue—whether Rafsanjani and Mousavi are, as has been charged, representing the rich—remains open to question. It appears that many of Iran’s poor genuinely support Ahmadinejad despite his economic incompetence and dangerous baiting of Western extremists. From the perspective of which faction would be most effective at creating a stable, responsible, effective Iranian polity, things are far less clear than their typical Western portrayal would suggest. At a minimum, it does seem clear that the elite sees the situation as serious and that a significant split has opened between those urging harsh crackdown and those searching for a compromise that will both preserve the current system and offer space for all leading factions.

Note: Press TV has been described as “pro-reform” and “not government-run.” Whatever the truth of those remarks and whatever the degree of press freedom that has existed in the Islamic Republic here-to-fore, Press TV seems to be carrying relatively neutral coverage of the various sides in the electoral dispute. At a minimum, this suggests that at the moment press freedom in Iran is quite significant. By way of comparison, Americans concerned about U.S. media groupthink since 9/11 on such issues as Israeli behavior toward Palestinians and Iranian nuclear rights might view the degree of press freedom in Iran with some envy.

* "Moderates" is a loaded term which I use without any implications for attitude toward the U.S., toward the overthrow of the Islamic Republic, or toward nuclear policy. By "moderates" I simply mean those elite actors who take an inclusive attitude toward the continued political participation of adversaries in the current system and who, perhaps, hope that the Iranian system will evolve slowly in the direction of greater rule of law.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Give Iran a Break

Shortly after 9/11, Graham Fuller, former vice-chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council, wrote in Foreign Affairs (March/April 2002, 50) that "the real issue is not what Islam is, but what Muslims want." He also noted that one can find democratic values in Islamic thought and that "it would be more natural and organic for the Muslim world to derive contemporary liberal practices from its own sources than to import them wholesale from foreign cultures." A more cautious wording might have been 'to derive whatever liberal practices it chose to select from its own sources. Either way, Fuller's basic points resonate today in Iran.

The West would do well to keep its nose out of domestic Iranian affairs during this tense period of national introspection.

First, as Fuller pointed out, interference, even if "successful," would be more likely to generate an artificial form of democracy at best, a stillborn political mutant. If that lesson was not learned after the endless regime changes in Saigon so long ago, then it should have been learned during the 20-year-long Israel occupation of Lebanon, not to mention the decade of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Second, the more likely outcome of Western interference will be to empower still further the extremists who, like many of their political counterparts in Western states, are frequently careerists who have little regard for their own people and are simply looking for justifications for their own personal power grab.

Third, given the horrifying failure of Western policy toward Islamic societies in recent years, there is little reason to imagine that Western interference could actually accomplish much good. Western arrogance in Iraq produced a nearly destroyed society, the death of a million people, a huge step backward into segregation, and some four million refugees. The long-term effects can only be guessed at. Western arrogance in Palestine has smashed that society beyond recognition and left 1.5 million people in a concentration camp under daily torture. One could continue with the examples of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Somalia. Western leaders neither achieved security nor stable control nor justice. Western leaders are certainly not wise enough and sadly are hardly so morally motivated as to merit the faith of the Iranian people.

Yes, sad events are occurring in Iran, and decent people want to help, but the most effective way to do so is not preaching or insulting and is certainly not by provoking terrorism or manipulating elections or assassinating opponents. Few Americans would have appreciated such Iranian "help" during the trials of desegregation. Societies need to sort out their own problems.

What Washington can do is:

  • stand ready for exchange of opinions with any Iranian figures willing to interact;
  • hold the door open to real policy changes whenever Iran gets its house in order;
  • firmly reject extremist calls from within the West to take advantage of current Iranian disorder;
  • and take absolutely no step that could be interpreted by even the most conspiracy-minded radical as a threat.

The political struggle in Iran is not about the U.S., though it will certainly have implications for the U.S. Nor is it about Israel or nuclear policy. It is not primarily a struggle between the Islamic Republic and democracy either, though some Iranians on each side would vociferously disagree. For many important figures, the struggle may well simply be about power: as with all elites, everyone wants it. For broader social strata, the struggle seems to be about how best to tailor a uniquely Iranian form of government.

Iranian Clerical Debate Over Election

Iranian electoral debate not only continues but appears to be intensifying within the clerical elite. It remains unclear whether the second generation (i.e., war vs Saddam) national security elite or the protestors will benefit more from the potential emerging power vacuum.

Three distinct messages are now circulating in Iranian media from senior clerics.

  • Representing the (fringe?) liberal flank of the Iranian clerical establishment, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri on Tuesday that “no one in their right mind can believe” the results of the Iranian presidential election.

  • On Thursday, conservative Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi enunciated what appears to be an emerging centrist clerical perspective most concerned with maintaining a united society under Islamic rule.

  • Today Ayatollah Seyyed Ahmad Khatami laid out a harsh, uncompromising extremist line, essentially arguing that the regime is perfect by definition and all who beg to differ are traitors. As even Americans found out after 9/11, the potential for such anti-democratic extremism exists in all societies under stress.

Ahmad Khatami is a member of the Assembly of Experts, a group of 86 Islamic scholars charged with supervising the Supreme Leader. His view of the U.S. is explicit. In 2007, for example, he said:

In order to pursue its interferences in independent countries of the world, the United States always backs up the process of soft coups, resorting to promotion of Western culture in so-called civil societies, creation of gaps between the nations and their governments through crisis generation and systematic activities of certain individuals, and launching psychological wars….Then in the long run, taking full advantage of the press, mass media, and intellectual circles, and launching feminist campaigns, they try to reap the fruits of their vast scale efforts.

If serious splits do in fact develop within the clergy, this could well create a power vacuum to the advantage of the elites of the military and national security agencies, i.e., the core elite supporters of Ahmadinejad. Whether or not it could rebound to the advantage of those protesting the regime’s official electoral outcome remains unclear.

Meanwhile, Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran, has issued a moderate statement, criticizing the Interior Ministry for causing confusion by concealing electoral data and comparing Iran’s electoral dispute with the Florida scandal during the Bush-Gore race. Such a comparison implicitly chides both sides, suggesting that resolution should come through the courts (rather than the streets) but also implying that a legal issue actually exists that needs resolving, which would seem to challenge the position of hardliners (e.g., Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and Ahmad Khatami). Whether or not such a legal process will occur remains unclear, but a separate legal procedure that could embarrass hardliners appears more likely now, with the announcement by Iran's Minister of Science, Research and Technology Mohammad Mehdi Zahedi, an Ahmadinejad protégé hostile to student activists, that those who attacked Iranian universities (i.e., “Red Guard” Basij paramilitaries who assaulted student protestors) would be punished. Should that actually occur, it would symbolize a significant step toward the rule of law under the Islamic Republic.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Rising Iranian Clerical Unease Over Electoral Dispute

Today’s remarks by an Iranian grand ayatollah may indicate the emergence of a split between the revolution’s two conservative factions: the first generation clergy led by Khamenei and second generation “neo-con” national security faction led by Ahmadinejad.

Iran’s English-language PressTV has published a statement by Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi calling for settlement of the presidential election dispute through "national conciliation" and describing the dispute as having “caused deep regret and sorrow in all Iranians loyal to the Islamic establishment and the revolution….”

He went on to note that “the problems must be solved through legal means," a statement that would appear both to caution against street protests and to support calls by the opposition to investigate alleged irregularities. Seeming to emphasize this support for opposition position, he added that "definitively, something must be done to ensure that there are no embers burning under the ashes, and (to ensure) that hostilities, antagonism and rivalries are transformed into amity and cooperation among all parties."

According to the press report, “He called on rival parties to show self-restraint, to resolve the problems rationally and to bear in mind the future of the country,” further implying a warning against any possible illegal coup attempts by the national security agencies.

Described in the report as a “highly revered Islamic jurist with a large number of followers,” Makarem-Shirazi is a widely published religious theorist and revolutionary activist from the Shah’s era, now retired from government. A very strict conservative, he issued a fatwa opposing Ahmadinejad’s effort to allow women to attend soccer matches, opposed a moderate attitude toward smoking evoked by Iraqi Ayatollah Sistani, and has strongly supported both the compulsory wearing of the hijab and enforcement of religious rules by the Iranian morality police, and in August 2006 reacted to Israel’s vicious onslaught into Lebanon by warning that Iran’s clergy might declare a “defensive jihad” against Israel. In 2008, he was one of three ayatollahs who criticized Ahmadinejad’s economic policies.

Makarem-Shirazi’s remarks follow by only two days the outspoken criticism of the election by Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who said “no one in their right mind can believe” the results. But Montazeri, a political gadfly, is, by grand ayatollah standards, a liberal with a record of supporting civil rights who was forced out of government by Khomenei. Makarem-Shirazi is much more of an insider so his more neutral remarks may nevertheless constitute a more significant sign of clerical ambivalence toward Ahmadinejad.

Iran Protest: Don't Forget the Majlis

Although Iranian street protests attract attention, a more significant venue for change may be the Majlis (parliament), where the balance of forces reputedly leaves great room for coalition building.

The most obvious question concerns the accuracy of the above data. Indeed, the numbers, perhaps impossible to ascertain with certainty, seem questionable if for no other reason than the fact that they seem to lump supporters of Khamenei in with supporters of Ahmadinejad. Revolutionary-generation clergy represent a very different group than the "neo-con" war generation of national security specialists. Comparing this report with this one (both from just before the recent presidential election) suggests the difficulty of figuring out the real level of Majlis support for Ahmadinejad. In any case, the answer may well be less important than the main point: unless totally inaccurate, the above data imply great potential instability and room for building a compromise coalition. The effort that speaker Larijani has been making publicly to distance himself from Ahmadinejad in recent weeks underscores the conclusion that room for political deals exists in the Majlis.

But Does the Majlis Matter? Even in democracies with strong legal foundations, the role of the legislature can be more smoke than fire and, in fact, easily fade almost out of sight. The spineless behavior of the Democratic Party in the U.S. Congress during the Bush-Cheney years is perhaps the most obvious case in point. In Iran, the undemocratic clerical superstructure that sits on top of not only the legislature but also the executive makes it significantly more difficult for the legislature to take significant action. The apparent high degree of support from this clerical superstructure for Ahmadinejad further constrains the Majlis.

On the other hand, the existence of extended street protests and the recent signs that the clergy itself is split offer the Iranian legislature a rare opportunity to weigh in at a critical moment in Iran's political development. Whether under the Islamic Republic, the dictatorial Shah, or his perhaps even more dictatorial father, legislative initiative has typically played second fiddle to the powerful leader in Iran. The main exception to this pattern was Mossadeq, whose early 1950s effort to bring parliamentary democracy into its own in Iran was destroyed by a coup fomented by a self-serving coalition of the U.S., Great Britain, and members of the Iranian clergy.

Multi-level Political Conflict. Iran's future is being contested at several levels, including very public mass action in the streets, very private maneuverings in the national security organs, and the clergy (note both the twists and turns of Khamenei and the appearance of clergy in street protests).

The involvement of the national security agencies is hinted at by Rezaei's protest followed by his withdrawal of that protest and by rumors reported by international media but denied by Fars News Agency that Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Commander General Ali Fazli had been fired for refusing to repress demonstrations, allegedly goes back to the moment of the election (and even before):

One hour after voting had ended on June 12, Iran’s Interior Ministry had called Mousavi’s headquarters to inform him that he was going to win, and that he should prepare his victory statement without boasting too much, in order not to upset Ahmadinejad’s supporters. But suddenly everything changed. Several commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRG) showed up at Mousavi’s headquarters and told him that his campaign was tantamount to a "velvet revolution," which they would not allow to succeed.

Within this frenzy of maneuvering and second guessing, keep an eye on the Majlis.

On the make-up of the Majlis, see this report on the most recent parliamentary election, in 2008.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Rezaei Demands Vote Data

Iranian electoral protests are going well beyond just "moderates" and students. Former commander of the Revolutionary Guards Rezaei may have no shot at winning, but don't discount his influence during the protest.

Dissatisfaction over the Iranian election seems to be increasing, with former Revolutionary Guards commander Rezaei intensifying his personal protest:

Defeated presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaei has given the Interior Ministry an ultimatum to release the detailed election results.

In a letter to Iran's Interior Minister Sadeq Mahsouli, Rezaei objected to the delay in releasing the exact number of votes and a detailed and comprehensive result of each and every ballot box.

He said that unless the results are released by the end of Wednesday, the delay denies candidates their legal right for filing complaints.

With Iran having a regime that we take to be highly control-oriented, super-patriotic, and reliant on the support of the military, it is one thing for a politician who campaigned as a reformer and who is popular among students to take to the streets in protest. It is quite another for the man who commanded the Revolutionary Guards during the war against Saddam...the war that created the neo-con generation Ahmadinejad has been relying on as a key pillar of his support...to make public demands on the government.

It might be easy for the regime to clamp down hard with its intelligence and para-military forces against the students, but such a tactic seems utterly irrelevant to the problem being posed by superpatriot Rezaei. It is no wonder that Khamenei appears to be staying out of the limelight, presumably trying to figure out how to respond. (Take a look at Rezaei's "face full of resolution" in the photo that PressTV published.)

Rezaei's remarks also raise a specific question that authorities may find hard to address: if the exact number of votes has not been released, this suggests that either it is still being tabulated or that the regime is hiding something. If it is still being tabulated, then how could the regime have been so certain about the outcome immediately after the election? If the regime is hiding something...well, then that does prove the protesters' point.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Netanyahu Slaps Down Obama

Netanyahu utterly rejected all notion of two states or one state. Insisting on a state with security for Jews and a separate place without security for Palestinians, he made himself the enemy of any peaceful resolution of the dispute.

Netanyahu's speech in response to Obama's initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute amounted to a complete rejection. It leaves Obama with two clear alternatives: submit or turn his back on the Israeli regime.

After an extraordinarily onesided and utterly uncompromising rewriting of the history of the creation of Israel, he went on to twist Israeli-Palestinian relations out of all recognition, portraying himself as a man with whom one cannot possibly expect to reason.

Then, having presented Israel with its expansionism, its defiance of UN resolutions, its repression, its militarism, its apartheid, its ethnic cleansing as the innocent victim and Palestinians as the cause of all evil, he blandly asked them to accept Israel as a Jewish state. He made crystal clear that this would entail completion of the Zionist effort to ethnically cleanse Israel of its original inhabitants, stating that “we must solve the problem of the Arab refugees” which “must be solved outside the borders of the State of Israel.”

Then he began addressing the real substance, stating flatly, that “Any area in Palestinian hands has to be demilitarization, with solid security measures.” Israelis and Palestinians will live in peace side by side, with Israelis living in the house and the Palestinians living in the dog house. And the dog will never be allowed in the living room.

Netanyahu with this astonishingly frank enunciation of Jewish priority over all others made it quite clear that he, at least, understands only the language of force, and he implicitly raised the question of whether or not the world can indeed afford to allow the continued existence of a Jewish state. For all who respect Jews or have Jewish friends or feel sorrow over the historical mistreatment of Jews, Netanyahu's blind and arrogant expression of Zionist extremism was a sorry day.

Iran: Cracks in Regime Facade

Tehran leadership remarks and Iranian media treatment suggest severe cracks in the regime's facade as pressure from below continues in reaction to electoral results.

Looking very professional in his picture on Iran’s English-language PressTV news agency, Majlis (parliament) speaker Ali Larijani is holding up his open hand in a gesture that (at least to an American) appears to be asking everyone to calm down as he announces an investigation into violence accompanying the election protests.

To have the speaker making this announcement sends a couple signals:

  • It takes the initiative away from the executive (while, by the way, the chief executive is conveniently out of the country);

  • Even as it leaves Supreme Leader Khamenei wiggle room, it reminds all of his centrality, because Larijani’s other hat is personal adviser to Khamenei.

Am I reading too much into one article intended for foreign audiences or has Ahmadinejad already been intentionally sidelined?

To consider further, let’s look at the text. The situation: the incumbent wins an overwhelming victory, then the results are instantly announced (someone tell me how Iran could do that so efficiently? Could they send some electoral experts to Florida?) and confirmed as accurate by the Supreme Leader. The winner sneers at the mere idea that an electoral result in Iran could ever be fallacious and then skipped town. Then the Supreme Leader changed his mind and decided that mistakes might have been made after all and would be looked into.

In this situation, your standard dictatorship would have killed protesters (as the Shah did, for example) and harshly condemned the act of protesting. But Larijani referred to “unfortunate incidents” related to students and “reports of clashes with the people” (students in a dictatorship are usually “children” or “led astray by evildoers” but Larijani is sympathetic and demands immediate reports and, while evidently differentiating “students” from “the people” nevertheless implicitly links the two. The history of students in Iran is totally different from that of students in the U.S. I would not quite go so far as to say “student” and “revolutionary” are synonyms in Iran, but the link is there: whether you want revolution or stability, you can’t help seeing revolution in the distance in Iran when students get angry. Right now, Iranian students appear to be angry, and Larijani is not, at least in this report, criticizing them. That suggests to me that some very important elements of Iran’s highly factionalized ruling elite is beginning to feel very uncomfortable with the idea of Ahmadinejad coming out of this smelling like the new ruler of Iran.


PressTV concluded its report on Larijani in an astonishingly deferential way toward…no! not toward Larijani or Khamenei (unmentioned) or Ahmadinejad)…toward the students:

The lawmakers immediately informed Larijani and other officials including the police of the events and demanded the release of the detained students and the arrest and punishment of the perpetrators of the acts of violence.

They also requested that students be compensated for their loss.

Another PressTV report quoted Larijani in an astonishing attack on the Interior Minister:

It is beyond reason that students at a Tehran University dormitory or civilians at a residential complex are being attacked in the wee hours. The Interior Minister (Sadeq Mahsouli) is responsible and should be accountable for the events.

This remark is astonishing because of the public nature of such a fundamental rift in the ruling elite, which one might have expected to resolve things behind closed doors unless the rift has indeed now reached the point where it has become a zero-sum game. That the person making this charge is the personal representative of Khamenei makes it even more astonishing. The implications are even more significant than what Larijani actually is reported to have said: what sense would it make for the Interior Minister to attack students “in the wee hours” unless he were acting on orders from Ahmadinejad? Thus, Larijani seems to be challenging Ahmadinejad despite his reelection. It is hard for me to see how this charge can fail to result in the termination of high-level careers.

A third PressTV report (also today) implicitly equated the most recent demonstrations held by Ahmadinejad supporters and Mousavi-Karroubi supporters…no hint that continuing demonstrations by the losers are in any sense illegitimate. If that is indeed the regime’s new line, it represents an historic shift of attitude toward unapproved demonstrations.

This is a rapidly developing situation, already far different than it was only two days ago. The above analysis also rests solely on reports designed for foreigners and so may merely indicate what the regime wants the world to think. Nevertheless, the implications are at the very least highly intriguing.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Pressures Building for Mideast Political Shift

The current political context—Hezbollah’s powerful electoral showing, Western contacts with Hezbollah and Hamas, Israeli anti-Palestinian terror, Obama’s insistence on justice for Palestinians, Ahmadinejad’s victory-- suggests that the Mideast political pump is primed for change.

Contrary to the mainstream American media interpretation, Hezbollah was hardly “defeated” in any long-term sense in the recent Lebanese election. The Lebanese opposition coalition of which Hezbollah forms the core won a majority of the votes (around 54%) in the recent election, not to mention getting all of its own candidates elected. What would happen if Lebanon replaced its semi-feudal confessional system that apportions parliamentary seats on the basis of religious identities of half a century ago with a decently designed democracy (e.g., fairly apportioned electoral districts based on an accurate census) is pretty obvious: the influence of the Shi’a would take a huge leap forward, and at the moment Hezbollah is the party of the Shi’a.

Second, Solana's meeting with Hezbollah follows only by a couple days President Carter's meeting with Hamas and his call on Washington to wake up and accept the reality that Hamas must be part of a Palestinian solution.

Third, the verbal insistence by Obama and Mitchell on dealing with Israeli repression of Palestinians seems to be reaching the point where actual steps will occur. They have invested too much “face” in advocating the end of illegal settlement growth and a two-state solution (including Mitchell’s call for the development of institutions to support that solution) to accept the humiliation that defeat by Netanyahu would entail (or so, at least, moderates might hope).

Fourth, anti-Palestinian terrorism by Israeli settlers is intensifying. To continue to ignore the spreading attacks on Palestinian homeowners, the wanton burning of olive groves, and the calls by Zionist rabbis for the increasingly extremist soldiers in the IDF to rebel against Netanyahu should he cooperate with the U.S. would be to encourage a movement that is beginning to look very much like the Nazi movement in the years leading up to Hitler’s seizure of power.

Fifth, the apparent consolidation of the Iranian "neo-con" (violence-prone, anti-democratic, super-nationalist, aggressive) faction and resultant heating up of extremist Israeli calls for nuclear war against Iran raises the danger of allowing that issue to continue unresolved. Obama needs to make every effort to use his admission that Iran after all does have the legal right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to refine uranium as the basis for making a deal with Iran and putting a firm end to Israel warmongering. The level of irresponsible emotion in both Israel and Iran makes this issue an imminent threat to peace: there is no time for temporizing.

All these aspects together mean time is short for moderates trying to resolve outstanding Mideast issues. The political context suggests that real change is imminent in the Mideast:

  1. extremists in Iran and Israel could provoke each other into a war...or moderates can prevent Israeli aggression and offer Iran a fair deal that it might accept;
  2. Zionist "greater Israel" proponents can derail the move toward justice for Palestinians...or Israel's friends can, as many Israelis have already pointed out, save Israel from its leaders;
  3. Syria can be pushed more firmly into the arms of a triumphant Iranian extremist faction...or treated with respect and given back the Golan Heights, perhaps turning Damascus into a channel to reach accommodation with Tehran;
  4. Lebanon can be destabilized, radicalized, and made more of a magnet for Tehran... or helped to continue incrementally adjusting its political system in a way that both acknowledges that its Shi'a deserve more influence and encourages Hezbollah to participate more fully as a normal political party.

All four tracks are connected. Moderation on one track will facilitate moderation on the other tracks. In contrast to the nonsense being offered by Netanyahu, trade-offs make no sense: extremism on the Iranian track does not "balance" moderation on the Palestinian track. Quite the contrary: extremism on any track is likely very rapidly to pollute the process on the other three. Progress will require simultaneous progress on all four tracks. That is a tall order, necessitating skillful diplomacy. A million roads to war exist, and those roads are clear. Roads to peace also show through the veil of time...but vaguely. Talking with adversaries will be an essential ingredient for finding a road that will please moderate, democratic forces.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Better an Honest "Enemy" Than a Duplicitous "Friend"

To make progress in the Mideast, Obama should walk away from politicians who play the dishonest used car salesman and deal with those who speak honestly. It is far better to negotiate with an honest “enemy” than a duplicitous “friend.”

There are many problems with Hamas, such as their brutality, but it’s exceedingly hard to find any actor in international affairs innocent of that crime. Perhaps what Western leaders really find hard to swallow with Hamas is this organization’s way of violating taboos and speaking the truth. A case in point is the comments following the Hamas meeting with President Carter by Hamas spokesperson Osama Hamdan:

the current talks on a two-state solution while Israel is ongoing with the construction and expansion of settlements is like chasing a mirage.

But this taboo has already been violated by Obama himself, so surely we cannot criticize Hamas for agreeing with him!

Westerners simply must learn to take seriously an organization that can so lucidly point to the essential issue. The contrast between this remark and the endlessly mendacious comments by the Israeli leadership could hardly be more stark.

Arguing with Israeli politicians who are trying to sell some nonsense or other about illegal settlements that are considered by themselves to be legal or the right of Israelis who have stolen Palestinian homes to reproduce endlessly within those homes is a fool’s game that only serves to make Americans look like idiots. The mere fact that Netanyahu can manipulate Washington into playing this game day after day constitutes a victory for Zionist extremists, who, by the way, are increasingly turning to terrorism in order to make Netanyahu appear to be a “moderate” (since he only condones settler attacks on Palestinians, the burning of Palestinian olive trees, and the theft of Palestinian land…rather than personally committing those crimes). When a foreign politician tries to trick the President of the United States, then the President should calmly, politely turn aside and find another party with whom to deal.

The fact that Hamas can speak honestly does not make that organization a “friend,” but for professional managers of international relations, friendship is not the issue. The issue is negotiating a beneficial outcome. It is far better to negotiate with an honest “enemy” than a duplicitous “friend.”

Obama could do far worse in the Mideast than to select adversaries with whom to deal on the basis of the honesty of their public commentary. As with used car salesmen or real estate agents, if an actor in the global political system has something you want and offers a fundamental assessment of the situation that is honest, then contact them and see how far you can get. When the actor starts lying, hang them out to dry, and turn to whichever alternative actor who is currently speaking accurately. Facts are a great basis for making progress, and rewarding those who speak factually might just teach everyone a useful lesson.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Evaluating Iran's New Regime

What standards should the world use to judge the incoming Iranian administration in order to avoid the dangerous prejudices of the past decade? Iran has been on the defensive for 150 years but now happens to have some real diplomatic opportunities. Will Iran's leaders have the skill to seize their moment?

The war party in Washington has been weakened while it has been strengthened in Israel. This split opens the door for creative Iranian diplomacy. Washington has accepted Iran's legal right to enrich uranium; Iran claims it is morally precluded from owning a nuclear weapon. Now is the moment to resolve what suddenly appears to be a non-problem: define "transparency" as a virtue and take credit for leading the world into a peaceful future. Netanyahu's extremism and Obama's politeness fairly invite Tehran to score points by playing nice, an easy thing to do once you get what you want. Iran now has what it says it wants on the nuclear issue; now is the moment for Iran to prove it...and thereby start a process of getting some of what it wants on other issues (respectful treatment, release of impounded funds, acceptance at regional diplomatic fora, access to technology) as well.

The world will have to take its time about judging the new Iranian regime. After all, Obama has now been in office over 100 days and is only just scratching the surface of the change he promised. But this is a good time to lay out an analytical framework for judging the performance of Iran's incoming administration in order to minimize the myths and lies that have so dangerously characterized Western opinion about Iran for the last several decades.

The framework below was designed as a generic method for analyzing the performance of any political system. Over the coming months, it will be used to support an evaluation of Iran's new administration.The framework prompts the user to address the following questions, among many others:

  • Functionality: How well will Iran's administration provide for the common good?
  • Growth: Will Iran's new administration promote growth in healthy, beneficial directions?
  • Learning: Will it demonstrate the ability to learn from new external inputs?
  • Vision: What kind of a vision of the desired future will it define?
  • Strategy: Will Iran's new administration devise a strategy that successfully implements that vision?
Whether the winner turns out to be Ahmadinejad or a new man, the global situation related to Iran has been evolving very rapidly in recent days. The ball is now in Iran's court.

Opportunity for Iranian Diplomacy

Washington has accepted Iran’s legal right to enrich uranium. Now, how about Iran accepting its obligation to provide complete transparency?

Although I am delighted that Kerry has accepted one of the points I have reiterated in this blog concerning nuclear policy toward Iran, namely, that it has the legal right to enrich uranium, I wonder why it took so long for him to work up the courage to so state in public. Perhaps he read this blog, or perhaps Obama’s gentle change of tone is finally persuading Washington insiders that it is finally politically safe to think before they speak. It has been a long, cold decade (nearly) since 9/11. Whatever that sad experience taught us about Islam, it certainly taught us about the timidity of our so-called “leaders.”

Nevertheless, it was nice to hear Kerry acknowledge the facts:

“The Bush administration [argument of] no enrichment was ridiculous . . . because it seemed so unreasonable to people,” said Mr Kerry, citing Iran’s rights as a signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. “It was bombastic diplomacy. It was wasted energy. It sort of hardened the lines, if you will,” he added. “They have a right to peaceful nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose.”

The sound of politicians acknowledging inconvenient facts has been so rare this century...

Now, Mr. NEW PRESIDENT OF IRAN, whomever you turn out to be, why don’t you just say, “Thank you. That’s all we ever wanted. As a peaceloving country, we would like to set an example for everyone else by opening our doors to IAEA inspections without restrictions. Come whenever, go wherever. As a peace-loving country, we have no secrets. That being settled, about Dimona…”


Another diplomatic opportunity for a new Iranian regime interested in putting the nuclear issue behind them:

[Iran's] ratification of the CTBT might be made part of a negotiated agreement that would end opposition to their fuel cycle facility development provided they enact Additional Protocols to ease concerns about diversion. Iran can convincingly argue that they have a right under the NPT’s Article IV to develop a fuel cycle infrastructure to support the nuclear power plant they have under construction at Bushehr, and in the realm of isotopic separation medical technology as well as fuel cycle arguments apply. ... if their intent is truly the peaceful use of nuclear energy and medical isotope development as they have said, they should have no objection to prohibitions on testing.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Washington Must Talk With Hamas

Carter calls on Palestinians to unite and on Washington to face the reality of Hamas in order to achieve a two-state solution between Palestinians and Israelis. But Hamas has a burglar in its house and cannot be expected to renounce the right to fight until the burglar is kicked out.

Speaking for what might be called the “realist faction” in the U.S., President Carter laid out the need to deal with Hamas:

"I don't believe there is any possibility to have peace between the Palestinians and Israel unless Hamas is involved directly in harmony with Fatah," Carter said after meeting Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"My own preference is for the
United States government to find a way at a very [early] date to have direct discussions with the Hamas leadership," he added.

"The first step has to be reconciliation between the Palestinian leaders to have a stable foundation to negotiate effectively with the Israeli leaders," Carter said.

"I will be discussing with [Hamas] if they are willing to make the commitments for peaceful relations with
Israel in the future and accept the overall requirements for peace and accommodation," he added.

Carter seems to have gotten priorities straight: first, the Palestinians have to unite in order to deal with Israel. Second comes the issue of U.S. relations with Hamas. But even Carter still has not, at least publicly, faced up to the situation on the ground. When a burglar is in your house is no time to be lecturing a homeowner about practicing non-violence. Once the Israeli burglar has been removed from Gaza and required to start practicing non-violence itself, then and only then will be the time to ask Hamas to respond in kind.


The facts on Hamas' position regarding Israel, as pointed out by the Syrian foreign minister:

Now we have a new U.S. president with a different approach, so we hope there can be speedy progress.

He should realize, though, that Hamas has already taken two important steps: Khaled Meshaal announced his support for a Palestinian state with its border at the pre-1967 line—he did this at a press conference two years ago, and has restated that position many times since. He has also said that Hamas will accept a political solution to the conflict if the majority of Palestinians accept it. That means he accepts the political solution.

It would be a lot easier to figure out how to move forward if American officials would recognize the degree to which Hamas has already made the concessions Washington says it wants.

Self-Defeating Israeli Backstabbing Weakening the U.S.

Resistance by the Zionist regime in Israel to Obama's efforts to achieve justice for Palestinians via a two-state solution is undermining U.S. power, harming U.S. national security, and sabotaging Obama's broader foreign policy goals.

Israeli President Peres said:

There is agreement in Israel regarding the evacuation of illegal outposts and not to build new settlements. However, the issue of natural growth in the settlement blocs must continue to be discussed intensively in order to reach agreement. In my experience, focusing on a single issue ill serves the wider diplomatic process which is supposed to set the agenda for Israel and its neighbors.

What Peres means by “illegal” settlements is settlements not authorized by the illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank, an insignificant proportion of the settlements. All the settlements are illegal; moving one's own population into conquered territory violates international law and defies the U.N.'s specific decision on what Israel should do regarding its 1967 occupation of the West Bank. Peres' hypocritical playing with words is designed to confuse the simple-minded American public into thinking that the regime in Israel is a friend of the U.S. sincerely trying to cooperate to achieve peace. That is utter nonsense. The Israeli leadership continues to deceive and manipulate its spineless patron.

Whether or not U.S. envoy George Mitchell is in fact “working hard,” as he claims, to create a Palestinian state side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel” remains to be seen. Be that as it may, it is crystal clear that the so-called allied regime in Israel is doing the exact opposite, and making Obama look very much the fool in the process.

This matters. Yes, the U.S. superpower can destroy the world. So what? That obviously would destroy the U.S. as well and is therefore useless power. To be valuable, power has to accomplish something that the user wants to accomplish, and the more our so-called allies make fools of the last superpower, the less useful power the U.S. will have. As Israel foolishly undermines the U.S., it weakens the U.S., endangering U.S. national security, giving American policy-makers more than enough reason to break their ill-considered alliance with Israel, and, over the long-run, undermining the security of Israel as well.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Mideast Nuclear Umbrella

A nuclear umbrella is an incredible gift to bestow upon another society - incredible because of its value and because of its potential cost to the giver. Used properly, the gift of a nuclear umbrella could carry the Mideast a major step toward stability. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration is showing signs of an irresponsible willingness to toss this idea around without thinking through its implications.

The pro-Israel party is trying with some success to get Washington to accept the concept of a U.S. nuclear umbrella for Israel. That is a rather extraordinary idea: why on earth would a nuclear power give a nuclear umbrella to another nuclear power in order to protect it from a non-nuclear power?

In truth, there are some reasons:

  1. to make the point to the non-nuclear power that it would gain nothing from developing nuclear arms because its ability to use them has already been negated;
  2. to make the point to the nuclear power that it no longer needs the arms it has, implying that it should abandon those arms.

Little evidence is apparent that Obama is cognizant of either reason. Rather, he seems tragically to be moving in the direction of giving away the farm.

If the purpose of opening a U.S. nuclear umbrella over Israel is to persuade Iran that nuclear arms are fool's gold, the effort will fail if done outside of a context of accommodation. In a bullying context, Iran will see such a U.S. act as further evidence that the U.S. understands only the language of force. That lesson, drilled into the heads of Iranian decision-makers by the Bush-Cheney decade of military adventure, is the last lesson Obama should want to teach. To make the case that nuclear arms are not worth having, Obama needs to show that Iran can achieve acceptance, respect, security, and productive consideration of its foreign policy goals without nuclear arms.

If the purpose of covering Israel with a nuclear umbrella is to persuade Israel that it no longer needs its own nuclear arms (which would be a huge step in the direction of realizing the first goal), offering the protection for free (without getting Israeli nuclear demilitarization in return) is nothing more than the irresponsible squandering of a major U.S. bargaining chip. The minimum price Israel should pay for a U.S. nuclear umbrella is to abandon its nuclear arms, sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and submit to exactly the same inspections that Iran submits to. Such parity would eliminate whatever justifications Iran may have for resisting complete nuclear transparency. It would represent a significant victory for Iran, leveling the playing field and enhancing its security while allowing it to make good on its pledge not to possess nuclear arms. Yet it would also enhance Israel's security by stabilizing the region, minimizing Iranian insecurity, reducing the likelihood of a regional nuclear arms race, and—most importantly—reducing the likelihood of a regional nuclear war that could only harm everyone.


Secretary of State Clinton on Iran: "their pursuit of nuclear weapons will actually trigger greater insecurity"

And Israel's pursuit of nuclear weapons???


For Israel to trade its nuclear arms for a U.S. nuclear umbrella would actually increase its security - decreasing the likelihood of a nuclear exchange (either now, as the result of Israeli aggression for short-term gain, or later, as a result of some possible future Iranian aggression). For Iran to resist nuclear transparency after such an historic concession by Israel would expose aggressive designs clearly for all to see, at which point Israel could of course "re-nuclearize"--and infinitely faster than Iran could develop its primitive technical competence. Such a positive-sum outcome is the characteristic of effective long-term policy-making.


Francois Niccolaud, who was the French ambassador to Iran from 2001 to 2005, says if the international community accepts Iran's right to enrich uranium and Tehran agrees to an intrusive monitoring system, the nuclear standoff would be solved in a short time.

He says such a monitoring system would allow Iran to satisfy its nuclear needs and ensure the international community that alarm bells would be set off if Tehran moves toward militarizing its nuclear program.

“The basics of the solution could be put together quite fast. In fact, in a few weeks. Two or three months is perfectly possible -- if on both sides, especially on the Western side, people dedicated themselves to the task,” The Los Angeles Times quoted Niccolaud as saying.-- PressTV


In sum, the curious idea of granting a nuclear power a nuclear umbrella could actually make sense - if the value of this precious bargaining chip is recognized and an appropriate price obtained. The value returned for the nuclear umbrella should not be the furthering of Israel's already overwhelming military domination of the Mideast and all the consequent bitterness, plotting, and tension but a significant degree of regional evolution in the direction of stability. For any lesser return on investment, the granting of a nuclear umbrella would be to waste an invaluable American resource.

Much more logical than thinking about giving Israel a nuclear umbrella would be the idea of giving Iran a nuclear umbrella. The danger of nuclear war in the Mideast results from the aggressive behavior of Israel, not Iran. Iran has neither nuclear weapons nor an aggressive foreign policy. It aids, trades with, provides arms to its friends...just like every other country with global interests. Even rhetorically, it hardly matches the vitriolic words that have in recent years flowed out of Israel...and the U.S. Unlike Israel and the U.S., Iran has no record of committing aggression against other countries or maintaining colonies. Offered a nuclear umbrella, in the context of a broader accommodation, the sincerity of Iran’s fatwa renouncing the right to possess nuclear arms would be put to the test; judging from Iran’s history, there is a good chance that Iran would pass that test.

As with the idea of extending a nuclear umbrella over Israel, granting a nuclear umbrella to Iran should also be done only with the greatest care to ensure that the U.S. receives a valid return on its investment. Complete nuclear transparency and the consequent end to any possibility of an Iranian breakout from civilian to military application of nuclear technology would be a fair return on that investment.

How the U.S. would convince Iran that its guarantee was valid is a different question--one that Tehran would have to consider carefully. But it should by now be quite clear to Iran that its current policy of strategic ambiguity constitutes a severe and immediate threat to its national security. As long as Iran challenges Israel’s military domination of the Mideast, Israel will be a threat to Iran, but Iran’s policy of strategic nuclear ambiguity makes that Israeli threat much more serious than it otherwise would be.

One wondered in recent years if Iran would ever awaken to this threat of its own making. Recent Iranian news reports suggest that it may have. The U.S. should respond positively and consider how and when it might put on the table an offer of a nuclear umbrella. No doubt Iran would at a minimum demand implementation of a process of minimizing the Israeli threat. Iranian media have already referred to Israeli possession of that ultimate weapon of aggression, bunker-buster bombs. Surely, Iran would quickly think as well of the disposition of other weapons systems crucial to Israeli aggression: nuclear-capable submarines, AWACS, re-fueling tanker planes, and cruise missiles. Much room exists for striking a bargain. The result could be a broad Mideast arms control regime enhancing the security of all.

The bottom line is that the two issues of persuading Iran not to develop nuclear arms and persuading Israel to give them up are inextricably linked as tandem precursors to preventing a nuclear arms race in the Mideast.

A far-sighted Israeli policy-maker would be rushing to open discussions with Washington to avoid having decisions made behind his back. Imagine the political points that Israel would score if it offered military concessions in return for Iranian concessions! If Iran refused, Israel would be seen as peace-loving and deserving of support; if Iran agreed, Israel would enhance its security and receive the gratitude of its now very irritated patron.

In the meantime, the Obama Administration should start reviewing very carefully what its members are allowed to say in public. Secretary Clinton, of “obliterate” Iran fame, has loose lips that could cost the U.S. dearly. Indeed, far too much talk and far too little action seems pretty much to summarize U.S. foreign policy recently - a huge improvement over the subversion (e.g., of Hamas after it won a democratic election in 2006) and warmongering (e.g., the encouragement of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006) that characterized the Bush-Cheney period, admittedly, but still not much to brag about. Chattering on about the cultural contributions of Muslim societies to the world is one thing; chattering about priceless national defense resources such as nuclear umbrellas is another.

Washington possesses an astonishing array of options for making progress toward a more stable Mideast by manipulating its enormous superiority in large weapons systems appropriately. A weapon used is a weapon wasted. Poisoned soil and fallout and global resentment are not rational American policy goals. Weapons well used are weapons that persuade others to behave appropriately. When the weapon persuades others simply by virtue of existing, that’s good. When the weapon persuades others by being eliminated, that’s brilliant. It is time for Washington officials to earn their pay by thinking through the many options they possess to stabilize the Mideast.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Iraq: Sunni-Shi'ite Meeting Ground

One of the worst wars of the bloody 20th century took place between Iran and Iraq during the 1980's, culmination of years of tense competition for regional influence. Today, Iraq is being transformed from Arab-Iranian front line to Arab-Iranian doorway.

The implications of the rise of a Shi'ite Arab power with rapidly deepening religious, social, political, and economic ties to Iran have not been very thoughtfully explored in English. With the U.S. occupation having cemented in place a Shi'ite ruling coalition consisting essentially of various pro-Iranian factions, most studies seem to focus on the short-term question of whether Iraq can maintain independence from Iran.

An alternative approach would be to ask the implications of the rise of a society of sufficient power to retain independence and function easily in cooperation with both Iran and the major Sunni Arab states. Assuming the continuing threat of renewed sectarian civil war is averted and that Washington follows through on its public policy of withdrawing--thereby eliminating the provocative U.S. military presence, Iraq appears to be creating a huge social space in which the whole Mideast can operate. This creates something new: a neutral region for interaction among Salafis worshipping at Mecca and Shi'a worshipping at Karbala, Iranian nationalists determined to see Iran emerge and Sunni Arab supporters of dictatorships determined to resist change, and all sorts of private individuals with who-knows-what ideological leanings. Examples of the new ferment include Moqtada al-Sadr'sintriguing diplomatic trip to Turkey.

Intellectual exchange in a new free marketplace of ideas may well turn out to be less wonderful than it sounds to American ears, of course. As a recent Pakistani editorial noted:

The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has also had another insidious side effect — the rise of the Taliban and other Salafi fundamentalists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the rise of Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Let us not forget that the major fracture during the Afghan civil war was the accentuation of Sunni identity among the Pashtuns and Shia identity among the Hazaras.
Familiarity does not necessarily make us love each other.

The scale of Iranian-Iraqi social interactions seems far too great to remain under any government's control, suggesting that it will serve to break down preconceptions, challenge taboos, and provoke Mideast intellectual ferment. The impact this may have on regional political stability is anyone's guess, but having a region where all can meet seems healthier than the heavily militarized no-man's-land that the Iraqi-Iranian border used to be. The implications are far more profound that just whether or not Iranian influence will increase.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

WMD Non-Proliferation as a Key to Security for Both Israel & Iran

Iran's PressTV summarized Obama’s remarks in France about Iranian nuclear plans in a way that seems to offer highly pointed and reasonable hints about ways to achieve a nuclear accommodation with the West:

Obama also spoke after the meeting only to call Iran's possible possession of nuclear weapons a profound danger for the entire world. “We can't afford a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.”

The American president however failed to mention the sixth-largest nuclear power in the world,
Israel which is the sole possessor of an atomic arsenal in the Middle East and has at least 100 bunker-buster bombs.

Tel Aviv is not a signatory to the NPT and pursues a policy of 'strategic ambiguity', according to which it neither admits nor denies the dimensions of its nuclear activities.

Come to think of it, isn’t “strategic ambiguity” exactly the policy being pursued by Iran?

Others may wish to comment on whether or not the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty prohibits “strategic ambiguity.” Whatever one’s interpretation of the treaty, to castigate Iran for pursuing such a policy as a signer while encouraging Israel to pursue it as a non-signer only weakens the international non-proliferation regime. More to the point for the immediate issue of how Washington and Tehran are to reach accommodation on the nuclear issue, this report is providing a hint that Washington policy-makers should think about. Might there be a way to attach various conditions to a formal position of “strategic ambiguity” so as to create an evolutionary process toward an ultimate non-nuclear status that could encompass both countries that almost certainly do and also countries that almost certainly do not? Might the international community be able to devise positive and negative incentives to encourage evolution in the desired direction while tolerating a long-term period of “ambiguity?”

The Iranian report’s coupling of the nuclear issue with the highly controversial provision to Israel of the highly threatening and destabilizing bunker-buster bombs offers a second hint. The more potent non-nuclear weapons become, the more sense it makes to create a concept in international law of a weapons class defined by its potency that should be subject to international control. Nuclear weapons would then become only one example of the class. Indeed, the term “weapons of mass destruction” gets at precisely this conceptualization.

Once this concept is accepted, then it may become easier to negotiate reasonable compromises based on the question, “Are the truly dangerous offensive weapons of each side balanced so as to provide reasonable security to each side?” When this becomes the focus of negotiations, the door opens to a host of rational trade-offs. Iran might be willing to offer significant increased transparency in return for Israel returning its bunker-busters to the U.S. or putting them under an international inspections regime analogous to the international nuclear inspections regime requested of Iran. Putting the bunker-busters on the table (or just telling Israel their immediate return would be appreciated) would also put some meat on the flowery sentiments Obama expressed in Cairo.


The IAEA has just reported that there are no indications of covert diversion of Iran’s nuclear program toward militarization, but that because of the increased pace of Iran’s program, "improvements to the containment and surveillance measures are required in order for the agency to continue to fully meet its safeguards objectives.”