Monthly Archives: September 2013

US Approaches Détente With Iran Cautiously As World Leaders Talk

After more than a generation of ice-cold relations, Tehran and Washington may have begun the process of burying the hatchet, though for now that may yet prove optimistic. On Tuesday, Obama told the assembly and his international audience that what matters more than agreements between nations are agreements within them. In an address several hours after Obama had finished speaking, Hassan Rouhani told the UN General Assembly that his country is ready for more peaceful relations with the world. “Iran is an anchor of stability,” Rouhani declared. “Militarism and violence as means of subjugation have failed.”

“Coercive economic and military policies geared toward superiority have furthered a mindset that negates peace and security,” Rouhani added.

During this week’s annual meeting at the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama and President Rouhani were rumored to shake hands or at least meet up, a prospect that generated much excitement but ultimately did not pan out. Without fanfare, some pieces of the sanctions against Tehran have been lifted — while others, notably against banks that transact oil revenues, are firmly left in place.

The recently inaugurated president, Hassan Rouhani, has launched a major “charm offensive” toward the western powers, particularly toward the US, and personally to President Obama, who has sent private letters to Rouhani. While we are not looking at a complete normalization of relations, this could be the start of a gradual end to the virtual hostilities between the American and Iranian governments.

On Sept. 20, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu brushed off the hopeful rhetoric of reconciliation and negotiation from Rouhani’s office as simply “media spin.” He added, without a hint of irony,

There is no need to be fooled by the words. The test is not in what Rouhani says, but in the deeds of the Iranian regime, which continues to advance its nuclear program with vigor while Rouhani is being interviewed.

Actions and intentions seem to be the name of the game here, and whether the US or Israel or anyone else who wants to throw down means to use “all options are on the table” as a threat to use force and not as a bargaining tactic will determine how this all plays out. Repeatedly, the Iranian leadership has rejected what it calls “the language of threat,” demanding instead a tone of respect. It is surely no skin off our backs if an ancient civilization is accorded that modicum of formality.

Hassan Rouhani is the most moderate candidate the Iranian people could have elected, due to the stringent vetting process by the supreme leader and his lackeys. As Ben Cohen reminded back in August, “out of more than 600 candidates for the presidency, only eight made it to the ballot.” (The hardliner former nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, was crushed in the polls.)

In an opinion published in the Washington Post, President Rouhani gave a passing mention toward his country’s “peaceful nuclear energy program” in which, he wrote, for Iran “mastering the atomic fuel cycle and generating nuclear power is as much about diversifying our energy resources as it is about who Iranians are as a nation, our demand for dignity and respect and our consequent place in the world.” Rouhani repeatedly says he wants to engage with the international community as a whole, but do western analysts and experts agree that that is his goal? Does he represent real reform or is he just another “akhoond”?

On Sept. 23, Iran released 80 political prisoners, a move interpreted by Tehran correspondent Thomas Erdbrink as “another gesture of support for Rouhani” by the supreme leader, “who gave Rouhani the authority to pursue a deal with the United States,” though with a limited timeframe.

Amir Mohebbian, an insider analyst who is positioned at high levels in Tehran to offer political critique for outsiders, told longtime correspondent Thomas Erdbrink that the letter sent by President Obama to President Rouhani “promised relief from sanctions if Tehran demonstrated a willingness to ‘cooperate with the international community, keep your commitments and remove ambiguities.’”

Mohebbian also reported that “Iran’s hard-line clerics and military men … could attack Rouhani as a sellout and clip his political wings” if the nuclear talks do not yield results, and for the Iranians that means getting them plugged back into the international banking system.

“The overtures to the United States are part of a flurry of steps altering the trajectory of the Iranian state,” wrote Erdbrink, “including domestic liberalizations and returning the politically powerful military [particularly the Revolutionary Guard Corps] to the barracks — for now.”

Mohebbian added that Khamenei’s office was “generally receptive to the letter except for what he said was Obama complimenting Rouhani as ‘the representative of the Iranian people, not of the totalitarian leaders.’” Mohebbian also reported that the supreme leader “had been growing concerned about the future of the revolution, with so many of its founders aging,” ruling a country in which 70 percent of the population is 30 and younger.

Patrick Clawson wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that while Rouhani does not have the final say in the Iranian government, Khamenei, on Sept. 17, gave an address to top-level IRGC commanders, saying cryptically, “A wrestler can even show flexibility sometimes, but he does not forget who is rival is and what his main goal is.” He gave this metaphorical image the term “heroic leniency.”

Clawson reported that the new president, who by all accounts has been empowered to make this push for a diplomatic settlement, “is even better placed than his predecessors to have real influence” and “enjoys support from a broad swath of the Iranian political spectrum.” Khamenei “has long insisted that the nuclear issue is only an excuse used by the United States to pursue its real objective of regime change in Iran,” added Clawson.

Cohen, the skeptical commentator, wrote in the Slate webzine on Aug. 6 that Rouhani is not quite Mikhail Gorbachev. Rouhani, he wrote, “was an early confidant of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. … After the 1979 revolution, he served in a variety of prominent positions, many of them concerned with national security.”

Cohen further asserted that if Rouhani even dared to seriously challenge the Iranian nuclear program — e.g. confirming the uranium enrichment center at Fordow, which has the US, Israel, and Britain very concerned about its military aspects — “he would risk alienating both the military and Supreme Leader Khamenei, who recognizes the advantage of having a president perceived by the outside world as a reformist, but who will certainly not permit him to do anything that would irreparably compromise Iran’s strategic position.”

During the 1980s, when Rouhani, known as the “diplomat sheikh,” served as a senior defense official, the Reagan administration invited him to Washington as one of the pragmatist, moderate leaders of the revolutionary government in Iran, Shane Harris reported on Sept. 20. National Security Council staff members, in May 1986, met with Rouhani, and by all accounts found him to be very reasonable. One was concerned he would end up losing his head.

Howard Teicher, who had a senior position at the NSC, recalled that Rouhani “said many things at the time that showed he wanted to deal with us. And we could deal with them,” he said. “I left my meetings with Rouhani believing there were clearly people in the revolutionary government that saw the world and its interests in ways that were rational,” Harris quoted Teicher as saying. “To not engage him very seriously, to me, would be the height of folly.”

Paul Pillar, a former Central Intelligence Agency national intelligence official for the Near East and Southeast Asia, does not believe Rouhani “has changed his stripes at all. He’s coming at these issues with the same attitude he has all along.” This is also echoed by Greg Thielmann, who worked for the State Department’s intelligence bureau at the time, saying that Hassan Rouhani’s “campaign rhetoric was indicative of a fundamentally different approach to foreign policy than his predecessor.”

“There is mounting evidence that the stars are aligning for a more productive discussion with the United States,” Thielmann said.

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On the Road to Nowhere

Ian Lustick, the esteemed political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, has put forth a landmark essay on what he argues to be an utter futility of any “two-state solution” to the ongoing Israel/Palestine conflict. (It is only incidental that the final touches were put on it during Yom Kippur.) In the last 30 years, he writes, “the carcasses of failed negotiating projects billed as the last chance for peace in Israel” are now strewn about the ground of a peace process… whose process is interminable and has not led toward peace.

“With no alternative in mind, and unwilling or unable to rethink their basic assumptions,” he writes, referring to the “true believers” in a settlement in which Israel and Palestine would both become sovereign states along the lines of a war waged 46 years ago that one side dismisses as immaterial and the other swears to uphold as the starting point for that settlement. These zealots, as it were, “are forced to defend a notion whose success they can no longer sincerely portray as plausible or even possible.” Lustick further asserts that social forces that have long been at work within both nations threaten to contradict… thus making it all the more likely that two states is doomed to failure. To wit, “Strong Islamist trends

make a fundamentalist Palestine more likely than a small state under a secular government [presumably the West Bank, an entity roughly the size of Delaware]. The disappearance of Israel as a Zionist project, through war, cultural exhaustion or demographic momentum, is at least as plausible as the evacuation of enough of the half-million Israelis living across the 1967 border, or Green Line, to allow a real Palestinian state to exist.

It is “no longer inconceivable” that “one mixed state” may eventually appear on the world stage, a prospect that is trapped by the persistent and near-universal “fantasy that there is a two-state solution” that serves the purpose of “keep[ing] everyone from taking action toward something that might work.” The burden is now on him to prove what alternative would work for one of the world’s most absurdly tragic conflicts over real estate. The political representatives of both nations have their own reasons for voicing support to this moribund framework. For the Palestinians, this means that the Palestinian Authority, widely seen by most “as corrupt and incompetent,” must adhere to the same myth as the Israeli government, which “seems to reflect the sentiments of the Jewish Israeli majority.” Lustick even avers that the rhetorical support of a two-state solution “shields the country from international opprobrium,” which means it is a lousy shield anyway.

He acknowledges a prevalent fear among “many Israelis” in which “the demise of the country” is “not just possible, but probable.”

Surprisingly, left substantially unmentioned is the salient fact that roughly one-fifth of the population of Israel proper is Palestinian, as well. Maintaining the mantra of a “Jewish state” alongside a “state of Palestine” actually serves the interest of neither party to the conflict: the settlers are not likely going to be uprooted, and the Palestinian citizens of Israel are not likely to leave, either. Increasingly, the “objective realities” on the ground strongly suggest a de facto binational polity, which is masked by rhetoric intended to force a solution that no longer applies. As with the swelling balloon that will eventually burst at a certain point, Lustick writes,

there are thresholds of radical, disruptive change in politics. When those thresholds are crossed, the impossible suddenly becomes probable, with revolutionary implications for governments and nations. As we see vividly across the Middle East, when forces for change and new ideas are stifled as completely and for as long as they have been in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, sudden and jagged change becomes increasingly likely.

That sudden drastic shift calls to mind what Stephen Jay Gould called a “punctuated equilibrium.” Apparently at random, the “inconceivable” becomes “fact,” defying all the theories that predicted it could not happen. What will be the spark to ignite the fire next time? The alarm has been sounding the words “point of no return” for the past generation and more. A single secular democratic state from the Jordan rivulet to the Mediterranean does not appear to be a likely prospect anytime soon; by way of comparison, Syria will have turned in and destroyed its entire chemical munitions arsenal many times over by then. Using the analogy of an expanding balloon, Lustick suggests that a third uprising is only a matter of time, a resource running out rapidly.

“Israel may no longer exist as the Jewish and democratic vision of its Zionist founders,” Lustick concludes, echoing the stark pronouncement of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak who, in 2010, warned to his countrymen that the state cannot be an ethnocracy and democratic indefinitely. The likely future as Lustick sees it portends “ruthless oppression, mass mobilization, riots, brutality, terror, Jewish and Arab emigration and rising tides of international condemnation of Israel.”

However, this course can be averted. If the major players throw off the shackles of two-state dogma, “a radically new environment” is possible, one where “secular Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank could ally with Tel Aviv’s post-Zionists, non-Jewish Russian-speaking immigrants, foreign workers and global-village Israeli entrepreneurs.” This sounds more plausible than the rest of his imagined scenarios. Somehow, the idea that the “anti-nationalist ultra-Orthodox Jews might find common cause with Muslim traditionalists,” beyond things like bashing gay people and keeping women in thrall, seems obscure.

The world must be dealt with as it is, Lustick’s essay ultimately counsels. Further conflict is not preventable, but the feared outcome of it is steerable, if “the stifling reign of an outdated idea” is allowed to fade away to be replaced by the unknown.

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CNN and Syria: Media Analysis

The only time cable TV news is exposed to me is when I’m at the gym watching CNN, which plays on most of the screens in front of the elliptical machines and bikes. This evening, Wolf Blitzer and the gang were talking about the Syria situation. It quickly became apparent that there is a certain range of acceptable, “responsible” Mainstream Commentary when it comes to the bloodbath thousands of miles away in Damascus and its environs. The Most Trusted Name in News has an unspoken set of parameters that proscribe the bounds of serious discourse on the White House’s options.

At the latest, President Obama has asked Congress to authorize the use of force against Bashar al-Assad for reportedly launching chemical weapons against “his own people,” and a bipartisan consensus is emerging slowly. It is reflected by the choice of guests on the Blitzer show… for example, Rep. Peter King, who criticizes the administration for not wanting to go far enough and showing “weakness” by requesting legal authorization from the theoretical representatives of the American people. Another voice was from a former military figure, and now a prized analyst, who thought the idea of launching missiles from warships in the Mediterranean was foolish because it may introduce the risk of what’s called “mission creep,” where events can spiral out of control from what is intended by Washington.

The other end of the spectrum is where another commentator can say, as Richard Haass, the head of the Council on Foreign Relations, said, that the president is the commander in chief and has every legal right in the world to use the armed forces of the United States whenever and wherever. That is, of course, an exaggeration, but the unspoken assumption across the only allowable spectrum on CNN is that the US reserves the unilateral right to use force in its unquestioned role as global policeman. Further, as a sort of political corollary, anyone who does question that premise is branded as a “dangerous isolationist.”

Let’s assume the worst, that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on a mass scale. (One report said his brother directly ordered the attack.) If the United Nations does not approve military action, all but a sure thing because of the crucial Russian veto, the recent parliament vote in the UK against London taking part starkly contrast to the expectation made in the channel’s opinion segment on what to do about all of this that Congress will eventually comply — and that the president looks weak and foolish for consulting them, still so at this late hour.

Monstrous acts happen all over the world. Why Syria? Why is it our responsibility to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy? And why is it assumed our actions cannot make things even more chaotic and violent? No one disputes that chemical attacks are abhorrent and out of bounds even in the midst of war, but do you recall any CNN segment on the use of chemical weapons in Fallujah and their horrendous effects? (If you can locate it, please let me know and I will stand corrected.)

Further, our word abroad rings hollow to many people, who can point to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as all the reason they need when talk of “unconventional weapons” gets thrown at them.

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