Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Iranian Nuclear Dispute: Resolution, not Humiliation

Treatment by American writers of recent official Washington opinion about the state of Iran's nuclear development seems curious. According to the New York Times, Washington now sees Iran as having the ability to start weaponizing uranium but as voluntarily not taking that step, a situation the Times portrays as raising tensions! If the Iranians are to be accused of raising tensions and provoking Israeli militarists by choosing not to enrich uranium to weapons grade (still long technical steps away from actually building a bomb, much less one that would reliably work or be deliverable), then what does Iran have to do to signal willingness to find a mutually acceptable solution?

For the Israeli right wing and its American supporters, the answer seems to be that both the personal humiliation of Iran's leaders and the broader humiliation of the Islamic regime constitute the minimally acceptable goal.

That is a dangerous strategy, risking either war or a nationalist reaction in Iran that will only work to the benefit of Ahmadinejad and his IRGC backers. Netanyahu is fond of making comparisons between Ahmadinejad and Hitler to pressure historically-challenged Americans into coughing up more political and military support for his expansionist program, but there really is at least one valid comparison between the two...indeed, among all three. Hitler rose to power on a wave of nationalist reaction to the international humiliation inflicted on Germany after World War I, and Ahmadinejad is betting his career that he can ride the same wave in Iran.

First, a politician get voters riled up, focusing on real or imagined foreign insults. The military supports the politician because it is a good way to get a bigger budget and perhaps free arms from foreign patrons. There may or may not be any intention whatsoever of starting a war, but adversaries get nervous, and tensions rise. The more tensions rise, the more self-important (with some reason) the military feels, and the cycle continues...until one way or another, war occurs.

We have just this summer all had a taste of some of the political passions flowing through the veins of Iranians. This society of 70,000,000 has experienced extraordinary events in comparison with the calm lifestyle of Westerners. Provoking a wave of Iranian nationalist outrage would not be good for the world and would certainly not be good for the Israeli people, who number barely a tenth as many.

For those who want to resolve the nuclear dispute with Iran, humiliation is not a rational way forward.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Yemen & the Western Confrontation With Islam

The latest hotspot in the Muslim world, as is slowly becoming obvious to all, is Yemen. The problem is determining whether this is primarily a local issue having to do with, perhaps, resource misallocation or failure of the elite to share power with either A. "the people" or B. "those people" (of some distinct ethnic or religious identity). Whatever the causes of political strife in Yemen (which has been going on at least since Nasser's day in the 1950s), the usual cast of busybody outsider is hastening to interfere. Thus, alas, whether the causes were mainly local or not at the outset, Yemen either now already is or soon will be the latest brushfire in the Western conflict with Islam.

While I would normally hesitate to quote the highly biased Zionist website DEBKA, its analysis of Yemen is very revealing of the Zionists' ethnocentric perspective on the world. It is, according to DEBKA, of course all about Israel, or at least, that is what they would have us believe.

"The latest paroxysm of Yemen's five-year war with the rebel Houthis has left more than 2,000 dead in less than a month and up to 150,000 homeless. Yemeni government troops are battling around 15,000 Iranian-armed and trained Houthi rebels dug into the northern Sadaa mountains on the Saudi Arabian border. Saudi air force bombers are pounding the rebels and the Egyptian air force and navy are ferrying ammunition to the Yemen army with US encouragement and funding.

This is the second war in less than a year in which US allies are pitted against Iran-backed forces. The first was Israel's three-week campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which ended last January.

This strategically-located, poor Red Sea country, for years a critical stage for the war on Islamist extremists, has now become a key arena where the United States and Iran jockey for regional primacy. In that respect, the Yemen conflict compares in importance with the 2006 Lebanon War and the Gaza conflict. Its outcome will bear heavily on the relative strategic positions in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea regions of the US - as well as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and indirectly Israel too - vis-à-vis Iran."

There are two obvious alternative reactions one might have to this analysis. The first is that it is true: Iran is opening a new front against the world (or at least against Israel). If that is the case, then the obvious questions that need answering include:

* What is there about the regime in power in Yemen that might justify giving it support?
* If support is justified, should that support be military or, perhaps, encouragement to expand democratic rights and broaden enfranchisement with an eye to bringing the disaffected Yemeni Shi'a into the political system?

The other obvious candidate reaction to this piece is that it represents what the Zionist party in Israel (i.e., those who believe in the elimination of the Palestinians in favor of a religious state and the expansion of the Israeli state and a policy of "security through strength" rather than living in peace with neighbors) want the West to believe. According to DEBKA, the Yemen conflict, like Gaza(!), is a war against Iranian influence, all part of one big "war on Islamist extremists." Whether Sunnis or Shi'a, all Muslims who oppose Israel and all Muslims who accept Iranian aid to resolve local squabbles are part of a "war on Islamist extremists." It is, no doubt, supposed to follow from this that we should be glad Israel exercises nuclear hegemony over the Mideast and that its settlers are rapidly stealing all the Palestinians' land in the West Bank.

The West needs to take a hard look at what is occurring in Yemen before pouring gasoline on yet another Muslim fire. Whatever extremists (i.e., those favoring the use of force to achieve foreign policy goals) in Iran are up to in Yemen, it is very clear that extremists in Israel are exploiting the problems in Yemeni society to get Congress to open the spigots of military aid even wider.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Iran's Two-Track Stance on Talks: Western Opportunity

On Sept. 3, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, was quoted by the website of Iran’s al-Alam television station (according to the Iran Quest internet Iran news site, as stating that:

It is wrong to think that possible talks with (the six world powers) would be about Iran’s nuclear program….Iran’s nuclear issue can only be examined at the International Atomic Energy Agency.

One possible reaction to this is to read negatively. Indeed, it does sound as though the speaker wants to define the two tracks separately as a means of obstructing progress. Nothing would be easier in the hostile and one-sided political environment of the West than to pretend this simple quote represents the sum total of Iran’s official position and the sum total of its capacity for national security thinking. If one is searching for an excuse to discard moderation, dismiss negotiations, and move toward war, such a reaction would certainly be the way to go.

Another possible reaction is to see what advantage can be derived from this Iranian proposal for two-track negotiations about the state of global affairs. It is not only logical that Iranians concerned about their country’s national security would be capable of considering a policy other than frontal confrontation, the historical record demonstrates that they have done so. One need not go back to Iran’s cooperation with the U.S. in 2001 when it invaded Afghanistan; leading up to the recent Iranian presidential campaign, Ahmadinejad was criticized for his provocative stance toward the West…and not just by those currently known as “opposition” candidates. For Westerners seeking a solution to the nuclear dispute with Iran, it would quite simply be self-defeating to overlook this opportunity.

The argument that Iran’s two-track position represents an opportunity can be argued on many levels, but just consider one: the bureaucratic level. It is now surely obvious to everyone who watches Iran that the national government is highly factionalized. Beyond that, any government that engages in a political process sets up bureaucratic organs of some sort to implement the details. The longer the process lasts, the more entrenched these organs become and the more concerned the members naturally become in “looking good” at home by engaging in some sort of notable, distinguishing behavior.

If Iran engages in prolonged talks about “global disarmament” at one international venue and similarly prolonged talks about “Iran’s nuclear development” at another international venue, two bureaucratic organs will be established – one for each venue. The more serious and complicated the Western approach to such talks, the more bureaucratic resources Iran will be likely to devote. Each organ will be to some varying degree accessible to a range of domestic political pressures. Westerners who think a finely tuned Iranian diplomatic engine will run both processes in precise lockstep simply do not understand the internal cleavages in the Iranian political system. It does not take a genius to predict that opportunities for diplomatic progress will occur…and evaporate if not perceived.

It is to the advantage of everyone on both sides who support a peaceful resolution of the nuclear dispute between Washington and Tehran to take the two-track approach seriously, investing significant diplomatic resources and putting on the table significant potential concessions that will appeal to like-thinking moderates on the opposite side. Cheney did not represent all American thinking on relations with the Muslim world over the last decade; Jafari does not represent all Iranian thinking on relations with the West.

Boom for the Rich

America is becoming a two-class society - the rich are booming, and the rest are declining toward third world status.

Don’t believe the hype about the recession ending. Note carefully how much money is being earned by those who call for patience. The elite wants you to think the economy is doing well because, for the elite it is. The rich really are getting richer, as a result of that nice trillion dollar buyout, although these days there may perhaps be fewer of them.

The reality unfortunately appears to be that the U.S. is being transformed into something like a third world economy for the mass of the population with an increasingly irresponsible “party elite” (as in “having a party”) perched like a monstrous fungus on top.

As for the overall economy, the recession is deepening. A quarter of a million new job losses occurred in August, to which you must add the roughly 125,000 per month required to keep up with population growth, for a real deficit of about 375,000. A big chunk of that came from construction, which contracted despite it being summer. One can only imagine what we may face in February.

More importantly, the gap between the rich and the rest, growing since the days of Reagan, is continuing to grow despite the recession. This gap undermines American democracy but was (barely) tolerable when the whole economy was booming. With the government skimming trillions – literally! – off the top of a declining earning base to reward Wall Street billionaires, the widening gap between the rich and the rest is no longer tolerable.

The proper way to manage a recession is not to enrich the rich but to keep people employed doing useful work and staying in their homes. Today, the politician/banker team would rather see homeowners on the street and their homes in foreclosure, slowly rotting away. Would it not be better for the banks to hire the homeowners to maintain the houses in return for being allowed to live in them? But no, the banks are just letting the vacant houses pile up. Ever wonder what will happen to the value of your home when the banks finally put all those houses on the market?

FDR’s visionary efforts to regulate banks and hire the unemployed to build hiking trails are forgotten in this economic catastrophe. Instead, protected by its Washington buddies, Wall Street executives concentrate on coming up with new ways of stealing money from the working class. The latest scheme is to bundle your life insurance policies for sale in a nice tidy package to rich investors, who bet that you will die fast enough to provide them with a profit. So…why should they agree to replace the current health care system that is designed to generate profits for the industry with one designed to keep people alive?

Why Americans are having such a hard time waking up to this social grand larceny is a mystery. It is shocking enough that Americans are in denial about the behavior of Washington in distant places like Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia (hint: Iraq, Iran, and Somalia have oil; Gaza has gas that the Israelis are stealing; Afghanistan/Pakistan is proposed as a pipeline route from Central Asia; can’t have those places acting independent). But oil isn’t the only issue; policy toward such regions is surely complicated.

However, the mismanagement of the U.S. economy by the Washington/Wall St. tag team of good buddies is not some distant mystery. We all know what they are doing, and we can all see the effect – the foreclosures, the unemployment, the vacant storefronts.

Forget it. Don’t get yourself upset. Just go watch TV…until the sheriff comes to kick you out of your house. After all, you can always get a job in Afghanistan!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Breaking the Iranian-American Nuclear Ice

The question is simple: how can the nuclear ice preventing progress in U.S.-Iranian relations be thawed?

Accepting and taking advantage of the current Iranian tactic of proposing six-party talks with the West including general global disarmament while reserving specific discussions of Iran's nuclear program to IAEA auspices might be a useful approach.

The Iranian approach is superficially logical. The IAEA is the place for nuclear discussions, after all. How can Washington oppose that? The IAEA is a key institution supporting the American-dominated global world order.

The oddity of Iran's tactic is that one cannot in practice intelligently discuss global disarmament without including Iran's aggressive program of nuclear research. To implement such a two-track process would provide limitless opportunities for the six-party discussions and the IAEA discussions to overlap, one venue competing with the other. Perhaps this would be all to the good, providing Washington and Iranian moderates with the ability to pick what they like from each track.

The double-track approach would also provide two alternative ways of eliciting Israel cooperation. If Israel wants to be accepted as a legitimate member of the international community, it can hardly refuse to participate in a discussion about global disarmament. Perhaps Iran can be persuaded that sincere participation can enable it to achieve serious national security goals.

The threats and bluster of the last decade have only made the situation worse. Why not try a little creative diplomacy?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Washington Needs a Realistic Position for Iran Talks

On the issue of Iranian nuclear arms, the U.S. imperils its own national security by continuing to function in a dreamworld, denying the unfairness of its position, which is based on Likudnik propaganda rather than reality. Only after opening its eyes will Washington be able to devise a negotiating position that will attract the serious attention of Tehran.

George Perkovich, director of the Nonproliferation Program at the Carneige Endowment for International Peace, has given an interview on the U.S.-Iranian nuclear dispute that deserves attention as it represents an effort to present to an American audience a relatively thoughtful analysis of a subject that is usually, for Americans, filtered through a highly biased Likudnik perspective. Unfortunately, even this interview remains fundamentally colored by cultural biases. Nuclear war is a fairly serious topic; our national security requires that it be discussed dispassionately and fairly. On this topic, the U.S. cannot afford to operate in a fairytale world. It needs to face squarely its own biases and the weaknesses that undermine its negotiating position. Needless to say, on the issue of Iranian nukes, it remains far removed from reality, mired in a degree of confusion that imperils global political stability and U.S. national security. Perkovich’s interview illustrates some of the problems.

Perkovich begins with a flat statement that fault in the dispute lies with Tehran:

The question isn't our willingness to negotiate or to try to find some resolution with this government in Iran. The real question is whether this government in Iran is at all willing to make compromises on its current posture and take the steps that are required by the Security Council.

Actually, it’s not quite that simple. First, he ignores the 50-year-long record of U.S. efforts to curtail Iranian independence, which cannot but make Iranians highly sensitive to national security concerns. Aside from that history, making demands backed up by none-too-subtle threats of potential aggression against Iran do not constitute “negotiation;” calling current U.S. policy an effort to achieve “negotiated surrender” would be more accurate. It is the U.S. (and its trouble-making ally, Israel) who are making the demands.

Iran is just doing what any number of other countries have done: trying to master nuclear technology that Pakistan and Israel already have in spades, force the world to pay attention to it by a policy of nuclear ambiguity taken straight from the Israeli playbook, and enhance its security via some version of mutually assured destruction. Tehran may want more; it may plan more. Nevertheless, seeking technological parity, asserting nuclear ambiguity, and enhancing its security is what Iran is currently doing: a very weak copy of what India, Israel, and Pakistan have done. The U.S. does not have much legal or moral basis for opposing such behavior by Iran while condoning and even actively assisting worse behavior by India, Israel, and Pakistan.

That is certainly not to say that the U.S. does not have perfectly good security reasons for wanting to see Iran modify its nuclear policy. If the U.S. can make a sincere case to the world that it apologies for having introduced and first used nuclear weapons and that it now understands the importance of eliminating nuclear arms, that would be a contribution to global security. If the U.S. could lead an effective campaign for a non-nuclear Mideast, it would constitute a huge step forward for human civilization and fully justify a Nobel Peace Prize. Given the dependence of the Israeli military machine on American largesse, Washington is in an excellent position to take a solid first step toward a nuclear-free Mideast whenever it so chooses.

Focusing on Iran, however, is something else again. If the U.S. wants non-nuclear Iran to make the extraordinary concession of giving up the pursuit of what its neighbors are already allowed or even encouraged to have, then it is up to the U.S. to make Iran a suitably extraordinary offer. If the U.S. has made an offer comparable to the desired Iranian concession, I’d appreciate having someone identify exactly what that American offer is. Offering to treat Iran with the normal respect due all societies, to stop threats, or to “allow” Iran to have access to the same technology as every other country (including ones that possess nuclear arms) are all nice door-openers but don’t make the cut as a serious negotiating position. If Iran is going to be expected to give up a valuable bargaining card (not to mention a measure of national security), it follows logically that it should be offered something of unusual substance in return. So, the “real question” is whether or not the U.S. itself is “at all willing to make compromises on its current posture.” The question of whether or not Iran will bargain is a secondary one.

What might constitute a reasonable offer? Washington should put the nuclear status of Israel on the table.

Acknowledging that Iran and Israel should be on a level nuclear playing field would first of all be a moral issue designed to open the door to serious Iranian participation in negotiations. It would effectively state that Iran is now accepted as a legitimate society entitled to respect, consideration, and national security. The details of negotiating a practical process of achieving such a level playing field would surely take decades, but it would finally provide Iran with both excuse and serious rationale for negotiating on its core national security issue.

Perkovich is absolutely correct that the critical question is whether or not Iran is willing to compromise, but to answer that question, Washington will need to make Iran a real offer.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Iran Is Trying to Talk

According to Iran in the World:

The ISIS writes that while the number of active centrifuges has decreased from 4,920 in June to 4,592, the increased number of total centrifuges (now 8,308) is significant as filling them with uranium is a “relatively minor step”.

This relatively minor technical distinction seems to me to constitute an extremely important negotiating tactic: namely, “Look, we can do what you don’t want, but we are offering to desist. We are developing the capacity for a nuclear breakout; Israel did it; we have every reason to match them. However, we are willing to relinquish our right: make it worth our while."

Iran has absolutely no reason to trust the West. Iranian leaders would be remiss to give something away for nothing. But this either is an offer to compromise or could be transformed into one by skillful Western diplomacy.

Washington needs to seize the moment, treat it as an offer, and make an attractive counteroffer. If I were an Iranian national security official, what I would want as a counter would be the international imposition of some constraint on the Israeli nuclear juggernaut.

Forcing the Mideast to Renounce Nuclear Arms

Despite the obvious bias of John Bolton's tunnel-vision view of Mideast affairs, his writings should not be dismissed out of hand. There is no obvious substantive reason why his rather superficial piece in the Wall Street Journal should have been published, but if you read between the lines, you can infer the glimmerings of a genuinely useful idea.

Bolton referred to "hard decisions on whether to accept a nuclear Iran or support using force to prevent it."

On its face, that may not be very useful, but think about the logic of the fundamental underlying question.

Should the U.S. employ force to create a nuclear-free Mideast?

If the U.S. created a level playing field by enforcing a Mideast nuclear-free zone, no country would have a legitimate reason for acquiring nuclear arms. The Mideast would be free of that particular source of tension.

All regional countries would be justified in asking why the U.S. had the right to tell them what to do, but in return the U.S. could reasonably argue that it was protecting them from a very expensive fool's errand. Nuclear weapons in South Asia, for example, have enormously undermined the security of the people of that region, where nuclear wars have almost begun several times.

Is the U.S. a "mature and responsible" country that, after managing the Cold War for all those horrifying decades, has demonstrated a sufficient maturity so that it "deserves" to hold the fate of other countries in its hands? In the Cuban missile crisis, the U.S. did manage to avoid a war; its record in the last 10 years is of course a bit less stellar. Nevertheless, perhaps there is a case to be made that the Mideast would be better off with the U.S. imposing a nuclear-free zone than allowing continuation of the insane situation that exists today.

If the U.S. were to make such a choice, it would do well to make it quickly, however. Having to force one Mideast country to relinquish nuclear arms would be a lot better than having to force two of them. And today, there is only one. Bolton is looking at the wrong country.

Call Tehran's Bluff

Iran, it seems, will replace insult with diplomatic finesse in an attempt to deflect Western pressure that is building to a dangerous climax. Much like the American shift from Bush/Cheney to Obama, Iran will now apparently promote a combination of a more reasonable face on the same old policies plus a willingness to negotiate the full range of international relations. Neo-con savagery will be replaced by diplomatic skill; the assumption that the opponent only understands the language of force will be replaced with the assumption that one might possibly be able to reason with the opponent.

This approach would make sense, and not just because the danger of Israeli aggression against Iran is very real. This approach also makes sense because in fact Iranian relations with the West go far beyond the nuclear obsession.

The potential exists for Iran to be drawn tightly into the international system.

1. The need for Iranian gas is urgent, not just for Pakistan and India but for Western Europe, now dangerously subject to Russian blackmail each winter.
2. The war between the West and independent Islam (i.e., that portion of the Muslim political world that demands the right to follow its own independent course) seems impossible to resolve either on its Iraqi or Central Asia fronts without the cooperation of Iran.
3. Persuading Israel to adopt the path of justice and moderation depends in great measure on persuading Iran to accept Israel’s existence. An extremist, racist, expansionist Israel both provokes and is provoked by an extremist, crusading Iran.

So Washington should embrace Iran’s new tactics and try to weave the strongest network of ties that it can. The more Iran becomes integrated with the rest of the world, the more benefits it derives, the more respect it receives, the less interest it will have in angering the West by building a few nuclear bombs that will almost inevitably be pitiful and backward in comparison with Israel’s stockpile. The larger Iran’s gas profits, the stronger will become the gas bureaucracy, which will argue against risking it all in a vain race to compete with Israel.

Gas exports will not trump national security, but the existence of such benefits of international cooperation will pave the way for Iran to buy into whatever new and more balanced regional security regime that Washington may be prudent enough to persuade Israel to accept.

All the major players are composed of multiple factions. Short of genocide, the extremist factions are not likely to be eliminated, but the factional balance—in the U.S., Iran, and Israel—is delicate. Skillful international diplomacy slowly constructing a mutually beneficial network of ties can marginalize the neo-con war parties so eager to profit from destruction.

If Iran announces willingness to negotiate, call its bluff. Respond to its complaints. When it offers a tidbit (e.g., a single visit to Arak or Natanz), express thanks, offer an equivalent response on some issue of concern to Iran, and push for a further step. Consider the potential bureaucracies (e.g., gas exporters) to which cooperation might give rise. Try to build momentum. Hostility has gained a lot of momentum over the last generation of Western insults, threats, and aggression. Reversing course won’t happen overnight; it will take commitment to build a cooperative relationship with Iran, to persuade Israel to become a good neighbor to those in its crowded neighborhood, and to create a regional security regime acceptable to rational moderates in both Iran and Israel. Iran took the first small step by allowing inspection of Arak. Iran took the second small step by allowing expanded inspections of Natanz. Iran took the third small step by slowing the rate of low-level uranium refinement. Iran took the fourth small step by announcing that it will present a plan for talks with the West. The White House is losing the initiative by remaining silent.