Tag Archives: Iran

A Meeting with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini 35 Years Ago

9 Feb

 

 

Exactly thirty-five years ago I had the experience of a lengthy meeting Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni in his tent where he received visitors in the Paris suburb of Neuphle-le-Chateau. It was several days preceding his triumphal return to Iran after almost 14 years of exile, mostly spent in Najaf, Iraq. I was returning to the United States after spending two weeks in Iran during the turbulent final stage of the revolution in Iran that was on the verge of victory. My presence in Iran was in response to an invitation from Mehdi Barzargon. 

 

I was accompanied by Ramsey Clark the former American Attorney General, and still then a prominent although controversial political figure in the country, and Philip Luce, a highly respected leader of a religious NGO who had distinguished himself by much publicized nonviolent civil initiatives of opposition to the Vietnam War. At the time, I was chair of a small American committee opposed to American intervention in Iran, and it was the activities of this group that I assume led to the invitation to get a first-hand look at the revolution. We met with a wide spectrum of Iranian religious and secular personalities, including the Shah’s last prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, and the notorious counter-insurgency diplomat, William Sullivan, who was appropriately the last American ambassador to Iran (there have been no diplomatic relations with Iran since 1979). While we were in Iran, the Shah left the country signaling the end of his monarchy, which occasioned at the time the largest mass display of joy that I have ever witnessed, with millions peacefully marching on the streets of Tehran in a festive mood. It was a remarkable outcome of this almost completely nonviolent challenge mounted against what had been considered one of the strongest military regimes on the entire planet and enjoyed the undivided support of the United States that had major strategic assets (surveillance capabilities in relation to the Soviet Union and a large detachment of military forces in several large bases).

 

Leaving the turbulent scene in Iran, and having the opportunity to meet with Ayatollah Khomeini climaxed this experience of touching the living tissue of revolution. In Iran, with crowds chanting his name and carrying posters bearing his image, it was clear that Khomeini was the iconic inspiration of the revolution that had unexpectedly managed to gain a victory over the Shah. We had little sense, however, of the sort of future Khomeini envisioned for himself or what his hopes were for the revolution. What was obvious from the moment we were seated cross-legged on the ground within his tent was the strength of his arresting presence, especially his shining eyes that seemed almost black.

 

What struck us immediately was his active mind and sharp intelligence. He wanted to know what we thought were American intentions now that the Shah was gone, and given the CIA role in the 1953 events that restored the Shah to power, whether the United States was ready to respect the outcome of Iran’s revolution. In turn, we asked about his hopes for the ‘Iranian Revolution.’ His response fascinates me to this day. First of all, he immediately corrected us insistently pointing out that what had just been completed was ‘an Islamic Revolution,’ that is, asserting as primary an identity associated with religious and cultural affinities rather than emphasizing the nationalist agenda of regime change that was the common way of interpreting what had happened in Iran. Khomeini went on to say that the importance of the unfolding of events in Iran related to the entire region, and subsequent history vindicated this expectation of regional transformations. Prefiguring the future tensions in the region, Khomeini spoke disparagingly about the Saudi Arabian dynasty, calling it ‘decadent’ and out of touch with its people. His emphasis was on the unacceptability of monarchy rather than on what was later emphasized by way of sectarian tendencies between Shi’a and Sunni tendencies in Islam.

 

Khomeini, then, explained his own role in Iran, saying that he entered the political domain because the Shah had “created a river of blood between himself and the people.” He added that he was looking forward to “resuming the religious life” upon his return to Iran, and would leave the governing process to others outside of the religious community, but drawn exclusively from the ranks of the religiously oriented supporters of the revolution. At first, as we know, Khomeini resumed his residence in Qom, a religious city filled with madrasas (or seminaries), but as the new leadership seemed to falter, his political role became more and more pronounced. By the time of the hostage crisis in late 1979, the radicalization and theocratic nature of the new political order became manifest, and Khomeini himself emerged as ‘the supreme guide,’ with the elected political leadership discharging the functions of government, but subject to his veto and vision.

 

There were other important pronouncements made during the meeting. We asked about the fate of minorities, specifically, Jews and Baha’i’s, who were seen as aligned with the Shah, and in jeopardy. Khomeini’s response was thoughtful, and suggestive of what would follow. He said, “For us, the Jews are an authentic religion of the book, and if they are not too entangled with Israel, they are most welcome in Iran, and it would be a tragedy for us if they left.” In contrast, “the Baha’i’s are not a genuine religion, and have no place in Iran.” Such attitudes did foreshadow both the hostile confrontation with Israel that intensified over the years, and the discriminatory approach taken toward the Bahai’s that at one stage approached a genocidal threshold. Both minorities felt uncomfortable living in an Islamic theocracy, and if they possessed the resources, mainly emigrated to friendlier national habitats.

 

Khomeini spoke at some length about the crimes of the Shah’s government, and the responsibility of its political entourage, suggesting the importance of individual accountability. He mentioned the Nuremberg trials of surviving Nazi political figures and military commanders after World War II as a useful precedent that would underpin the approach taken by the new Iranian leadership toward those who had carried out the repressive policies of the Shah, which included widespread torture and massacres of unarmed demonstrators.

 

As we know, this Nuremberg path was never taken by the new Iranian rulers.  The most prominent members of the inner circle of the Peacock Throne who had not fled the country were summarily executed without either indictments or trials. This was aptly treated by the outside world as an indication that the new governing process in Iran would turn out to be repressive and contemptuous of the rule of law. After the fact, it seemed rather obvious why the regime resorted to rough justice. Many of those who had shaped the revolutionary process had studied in Europe or America, and were recipients of economic assistance from Western governments, included funding from the CIA, and maybe performed political roles. Remember that during the Cold War era, Islamically oriented groups and individuals were looked upon as valuable allies in the West. This was due in Iran to their deep dislike of Marxism and the Soviet Union. Sullivan informed us during our visit to the American Embassy that Washington had prepared 26 scenarios of potential political dangers for the Shah, and not one of them had posited Islamic opposition as a threat.

 

Reflecting on this meeting more than three decades ago several strong impressions remain. First, the almost archetypal reality of Khomeini as the embodiment of an Islamic religious leader, who despite a physical frailness, exhibited great strength of mind and will combined with a demeanor of austere severity. Secondly, his vision of an Islamic political future that was rooted in religious and civilizational affinities rather than based on national borders. Thirdly, the discrepancy between his assertions that upon returning to Iran he would resume the pursuit of his religious vocation and his emergence as the dominating political figure who moved from Qom to Tehran to preside over the drafting of a new and suppressive theocratic constitution and the formation of the government.

 

I have thought often, especially about this last observation, and discussed its core mystery with friends. This remains my question: did Khomeini change the conception of his role upon returning to Iran, or did he hide from us either consciously or unconsciously his real game plan? As far as I know, no one has provided a credible explanation. It may be that Khomeini during his long exile underestimated his popularity in Iran, which he reassessed after receiving such a tumultuous welcome when he returned or that he found that the liberal Islamists (such as Bani Sadr, Barzargon, Ghotbzadeh) he was relying upon to manage the government were not committed to the kind of revolutionary future that he believed to be mandated by the Iranian people or upon his return he was pushed by other imams ‘to save the revolution’ from this first wave of post-Shah politicians who had mainly lived in the West and were not trusted in Iran. However such issues are resolved, it is clear that the Islamic Republic that emerged in Iran resembled the kind of ideal design of Islamic government that Khomeini had depicted in a series of lectures on ‘Islamic Government,’ which was published in 1970.

 

There is one further reflection that bears on the present course of events in the Middle East in this period three years after the Arab Spring. Khomeini by insisting on all or nothing in the struggle against the Shah did create a transformative moment in which an Iranian transition to a truly new political order took place. In contrast the 2011 militants in Tahrir Square were content with the removal of the despotic leader and some soft promises of democratic reforms, and ended up succumbing to a counter-revolutionary tsunami that has reconstituted the repressive Mubarak past in a more extreme form. This does not imply that what has unfolded in Iran was beneficial, only that it was a decisive break with the past, and in this crucial sense, ‘revolutionary.’ In this respect, Ayatollah Khomeini was a true revolutionary even if his goal was to turn the clock back when it came to modernity, including secular values.

 

 

Was it Wrong to Support the Iranian Revolution in 1978 (because it turned out badly)

9 Oct

 

 

            I have often reflected upon my own experience of the Iranian Revolution. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War I believed that the United States would face its next major geopolitical challenge in Iran: partly because of its role via CIA in overthrowing the Mohammad Mosaddegh elected constitutional government so as to restore the repressive Shah (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) to power in 1953, partly because there were 45,000 American troops deployed in Iran along with a network of strategic assets associated with Cold War anti-Soviet priorities, partly because there was a generation of young Iranians, many of whom studied abroad, who had experienced torture and abuse at the hands of the SAVAK, Tehran’s feared intelligence service, partly by the intense anti-regime opposition of an alienated middle class in Iran that was angered by the Shah’s reliance on international capital in implementing the ‘White Revolution,’ and partly because the Shah pursued a regionally unpopular pro-Israel and pro-South Africa (during apartheid) policy.  Against this background, and on the basis of my decade long involvement in opposing the American role in Vietnam, I helped form and chaired a small, unfunded committee devoted to promoting human rights and opposing non-intervention in Iran. I was greatly encouraged to do this my several students who were either Iranian or political activists focused on Iran.

 

In this period, while on the Princeton faculty, the committee organized several events on the internal situation in Iran, including criticism of the American role that was dramatized by Jimmy Carter’s 1978 New Year’s Eve toast to the Shah while a guest at the palace, ‘an island of stability surrounded by the love of his people.’  Such absurdly inappropriate sentiments by the most decent of recent American presidents were undoubtedly sincere but bore witness to what is seen and unseen by the best of American leaders when the world is understood according to the protocols of geopolitics. It was Henry Kissinger who more realistically praised the Shah in his memoirs, calling him “the rarest of leaders, an unconditional ally.’ It was this sense of iran’s subordination to the United States that increased the hostility toward the Pahlavi regime across the broad spectrum of Iranian opinion, and explained what was not then understood, why even those sectors of the Iranian establishment who had benefitted most from the Shah’s regime, did not fight for its survival, but rather ran away and hide as quickly as they could.

 

Despite being critical of the established order in Iran, the timing and nature of the Iranian upheaval in 1978 came as a complete surprise.  It also surprised the American ambassador in Iran, William Sullivan, who told me during a meeting in Tehran at the height of the domestic turmoil, that the embassy had worked out 26 scenarios of possible destabilization in Iran and not one had accorded any role to Islamic resistance. As late as August 1978 a CIA analysis concluded that Iran “is not revolutionary or even in a pre-revolutionary situation.” In fact, seeing the world through a blinkered Cold War optic led the U.S. Government to continue funding Islamic groups because of their presumed anti-Communist identity, which was the first major experience of ‘blowback’ to be disastrously repeated in Afghanistan. The unrest in Iran started with a relatively minor incident in early 1978, although some observers point to demonstrations a year earlier, which gradually deepened until it became a revolutionary process engulfing the entire country.  My small committee in the United States tried to interpret these unexpected developments in Iran, inviting informed speakers, sponsoring meetings, and beginning to appreciate the unlikely role being played by Ayatollah Khomeini as an inspirational figure living for many years in exile, first in Iraq, then Paris. It was in this setting that I was invited to visit Iran to witness the unfolding revolutionary process by Mehdi Bazargan who was a moderate and respected early leader in the anti-Shah movement, and was appointed Prime Minister by Khomeini on February 4, 1979 of an interim government of post-Shah Iran. In explaining the appointment, Khomeini foreshadowed an authoritarian turn in the revolutionary process. His chilling words were not sufficiently noticed as the time: “[T]hrough the guardianship [velayat] that I have from the holy lawgiver [the Prophet], I hereby pronounce Bazargan as the Ruler, and since I have appointed him he must be obeyed. The nation must obey him. This is not an ordinary government. It is a government based on the sharia. Opposing the government means opposing the sharia of Islam…Revolt against God’s government is a revolt against God. Revolt against God is blasphemy.”

 

In January 1979 I went to Iran for two weeks in a small delegation of three persons. My companions on the trip were Ramsey Clark, former American Attorney General who had turned strongly against American foreign policy during the last stages of the Vietnam War and Philip Luce, long-term anti-war activist associated with religious NGOs who had gained worldwide attention a decade earlier when he showed a visiting U.S. Congressional delegation the infamous ‘tiger cages’ used by the Saigon government to imprison inhumanly its enemies in South Vietnam. The three of us embarked on this mission generally sympathetic with the anti-Shah movement, but were uncertain about its real character and likely political trajectory. I had met previously with some of those who would emerge prominently, including Abdulhassan Banisadr Ban who was living as a private citizen in Paris and dreamed of becoming the first president of a post-Shah Iran, an idealistic man who combined a devotion to Islam with a liberal democratic agenda and an Islamic approach to economic policy. His dream was fulfilled but not at all in the manner that he hoped.  He did become the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, but his eminence was short lived as the radicalization of the political climate under the guidance of Khomeini led to his impeachment after less than two years, and made it necessary for him to flee the country, returning Paris, now a fugitive of the revolution he had so recently championed. Of course, such a pattern was not novel. Past revolutions had frequently devoured their most dedicated adherents.

Also, I had become a close friend of Mansour Farhang who was a progressive American professor of international relations teaching at a California college and a highly intelligent advocate of the revolutionary developments in Iran as they unfolded in 1978. Farhang was appointed as ambassador to the UN by the new government, but soon resigned his post, and denounced the regime he had worked to install as a new species of ‘religious fascism.’ There were others, also, who inclined me in this period of struggle against the Pahlavi Dynasty to view favorably the revolutionary developments in Iran, but later became bitter opponents.

 

My visit itself took place at a climactic moment in the Iranian Revolution. The Shah left the country on January 17, 1979 while we were in Iran to the disbelief of ordinary Iranians who thought the initial reports were at best a false rumor and at worst a trick to entrap the opposition. When the public began to believe that the unbelievable had actually happened there were spontaneous celebratory outpourings everywhere we were. On that very evening we had a somewhat surrealistic meeting with the recently designated Prime Minister, Shapour Bakhtiar. Bakhtiar was a longtime liberal critic of the monarchy living outside the country who had been appointed a few weeks earlier by the Shah as a desperate democratizing concession aimed at calming the rising revolutionary tide. It was a futile gesture, and one that Khomeini dismissed with the greatest contempt, showing his refusal to consider what at the time struck many as a prudent compromise. Bakhtiar lasted less than two months, left the country, and was assassinated in his home in the outskirts of Paris a decade or so later.

 

While in Iran we had the opportunity to have long meetings with a range of religious figures including Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani and Ayatollah Shariat Maderi, both extraordinary religious figures who impressed us deeply with their combination of principled politics and empathy with the suffering endured by the Iranian people during the prior 25 years. After leaving Iran we stopped in Paris and spent several hours with Ayatollah Khomeini on his last day in France before his triumphal return to Iran. At that point, Khomeini was viewed as ‘the icon’ of the revolution, but was not thought of as its future political leader. Indeed, Khomeini had told us that he looked forward to ‘resuming his religious life’ in Qom when he returned to Iran, and that he had entered the political arena most reluctantly, and only because the Shah’s rule had caused ‘a river of blood’ to flow between the people and the state. There were many intriguing facets of our meeting with this ‘dark genius’ of the Iranian Revolution, which I will leave for another post. My impression of Khomeini was of a highly intelligent, uncompromising, strong willed, and severe individual, himself somewhat unnerved by the unexpected happenings in a country he had not entered for almost 20 years. Khomeini insisted on portraying what had happened in Iran as an ‘Islamic Revolution’; he corrected us if we made any reference to an ‘Iranian Revolution.’ In this respect, this religious leader was obviously disenchanted with nationalism, as well as royalism (he spoke of the Saudi dynasty as deserving the same fate as the Pahlavis), and presumably envisioning the revival of the Islamic caliphate, and its accompanying borderless umma.

 

            I returned from Iran with a sense of excitement about what I had witnessed and experienced, feeling that the country might be giving the world a needed new progressive political model that combined compassion for the people as a whole with a shared spiritual identity. There was no doubt that at the time Khomeini and Islamic identity had mobilized the Iranian masses in a manner that was far more intense and effective than had ever been achieved by various forms of leftist agitation and ideology. Some of those we met in Iran were cautious about what to expect, saying the revolution has unfolded ‘too fast’ for a smooth transition to constitutional governance. Others spoke about counter-revolutionary tendencies, and there were conspiratorial views voiced to the effect that the overthrow of the Shah was engineered by British intelligence, and even that Ayatollah Khomeini was a British agent, or that it was an American response to the Shah’s successful push for higher oil prices within the OPEC framework that was threatening to the West. We were guests in the home of an anti-Shah mathematician in Tehran, a dedicated democrat who told us that his recent reading of Khomeini’s published lectures on Islamic Government had made him extremely fearful about what would happen in post-Shah Iran. Also, some Iranian women we met were worried about threats to the freedoms that enjoyed under the Shah, and were unhappy about the new dress code of the revolution that was already making the wearing of the chador virtually mandatory. Some of those we spoke who had supported the revolution insisted that once a new political order is established, there would be a feminist outcry to the effect ‘we’re next!’ Other secular women told us that they enjoyed wearing the chador because it gave them a welcome relief from spending time on cosmetics and the various ways that modern Western fashion treated women as ‘objects’ designed to awaken erotic desires among men.

 

            Despite encountering these reservations about the Iranian future, I returned from Iran deeply impressed by having touched ‘the live tissue of revolution.’ There was an extraordinary feeling of societal unity and solidarity that seemed to embrace the whole population, at that moment surmounting divisions of class and ethnicity, and even leading those with religious identifications to bond with liberal secular elements. It was a moment of historic mobilization, and although the future was unknowable, the release of positive energy that we experienced was remarkable. It included walking in a peaceful and joyous demonstration of several million in Tehran to celebrate the departure of the Shah and the victory of the revolution. Such an outpouring of love and happiness lent credibility to our hopes that Iran as a liberated society would go forward to produce a humane and distinctive form of governance.

 

            It was not long afterwards, that what had seemed so promising degenerated into a process that was deeply disturbing, a new disposition toward severly abusing opponents and the emergence of a new religiously grounded autocracy that seemed as unscrupulous as its predecessor. Khomeini surfaced as the supreme leader of this kind of harsh regime, acknowledged as such without ever being elected. To be sure, there were violent counter-revolutionary forces at work in Iran, and there were suspicions that the United States was maneuvering behind the scenes to repeat its coup of 1953. There is no doubt that the United States encouraged Saddam Hussein to attack Iran in 1980, hoping at least to detach the oil province of Kuzistan from the country, and possibly even toppling the Khomeini government. However, these developments are interpreted, there seemed little likelihood that the values that underlay the courageous campaign against the Shah would ever again achieve the spirit of unity and liberation that we found in Iran during our visit in early 1979.

 

            I had written and spoke publically about my impressions of the revolution that we experienced before it encountered these reactionary troubles. Ever since I have been sharply criticized for my early show of support for Ayatollah Khomeini, and my subsequent misgivings, even active opposition, were ignored. Such a pattern is not unusual, and I might try to give my side of the story at some later point, but now I wish to concentrate on another part of the experience, and talk about the relation between my positive perceptions in phase one and my disillusionment in phase two. I want to raise the question as to whether my enthusiasm in phase one was itself a misguided indulgence in utopian longing that necessarily ends in a reign of terror. Such is the essential thesis of Crane Brinton’s influential Anatomy of Revolution. This view is partially also endorsed by Hannah Arendt’s Revolution with its admiration for the American Revolution because it did not attempt to achieve a social transformation beneficial to the poor and its demonization of the French Revolution because it did insist upon the achievement of a just society, which led in her view to a bloody struggle with the threatened privileged classes and to revolutionary terror.

 

            Such a question was posed for me with stark vividness when I read recently the brilliantly provocative essay of Slavoj Zizek entitled “Radical Intellectuals, or, Why Heidegger Took the Right Step (Albeit in the Wrong Direction),” and especially the short section, ‘Michel Foucault and the Iranian Event,’ published in his breathtaking book, In Defense of Lost Causes. Zizek’s basic support for greeting such historically charismatic events with approval is based on the idea that the faith in liberating the moral potential of human society is the only alternative to being complicit in the exploitation and demeaning of the multitudes and passive in the face of pervasive structural injustice.  Zizek makes an important distinction between Heidegger’s temporary embrace of Nazism and Foucault’s of the Iranian Revolution, although he takes note of the similarities, especially the attractive quality of the transcendent moment of collective unity and its associated visionary embrace of a just future for the entire people. He seeks to distinguish the appropriateness of the enthusiasm and longing, and the actual deformity of the events.

 

In this assessment, Zizek sides with the outlook of the French philosopher Alain Badiou and the Irish playwright Samuel Becket: “Better a disaster of fidelity to the Event than a non-being of indifference toward the Event..one can go on and fail better, while indifference drowns us deeper and deeper in the morass of imbelcilic Being.”  Of course, it is a radical claim to insist that the deformed societal structures faces us with such a stark choice between revolution and complicity via indifference. Such a view rejects reformism and liberal perspectives because of their acceptance of the structures in place, and rejection of more radical challenges on behalf of justice.

 

Rethinking after more than 30 years my own sequence of enthusiasm, disillusionment, and opposition I am assisted by Zizek’s disquisition although I would not pose the issues of choice so starkly. What seems to me important is to side with the revolutionary impulse, although I am not sure that our historical experience gives us any confidence that revolutionaries are learning to ‘fail better’ although they are definitely learning to ‘fail differently’ (for instance, compare the Arab Spring with the Iranian Revolution) (or Mao’s cultural revolution with the Soviet experience with Stalinism).

 

Was it a mistake of perception, a radical form of wishful thinking, to underestimate or fail earlier to apprehend the negative potentialities of the Iranian Revolution when I visited the country in late 1978, and again in early 1980 in the aftermath of the hostage crisis? Or was it correct to give voice to the positive potentialities that seemed to surface so compellingly during those moments of collective excitement and unity, as well as were expressed by most of those with whom I spoke during the 1979 visit to various Iranian cities? Is Zizek and Badiou correct to separate so sharply the revolutionary vision from its actual dismal human results, or is this an incriminating instance of the irresponsibility of radical thought that has an infantile appreciation of revolutionary ideals while ignoring the conservative wisdom of serious conservative thought that warns us about the demonic outcomes every effort to ditch abruptly existing institutions and class relations? Are we as a species destined to see our dreams of a just and sustainable future always shattered by the deforming effects of struggles for and against new arrangements of governing authority and class relations? Are we condemned, in other words, to banish our dreams from the domain of responsible politics and confine our efforts to marginal reformist initiatives?

 

            Posing such questions is easier than resolving them. I am inclined to think that my response to what took place in Iran was authentic at its various phases, reflecting my best understanding of the unfolding circumstances, adjusting my evaluations phase by phase. I prefer such a view, even in retrospect, to indifference to the Shah’s oppressive regime, while realizing that drastic change, especially in a country endowed with abundant oil reserves, is almost certain to be a rocky road. Should I have been immediately more suspicious of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic dimensions of the revolution? Probably, but it was not clear at the time, because the leading religious figures in Iran were articulating a vision of a just future for Iran even if  the future made it clear that their preference was for some kind of theocracy. It should also be pointed out that some religious leaders did seem to envision a humane sequel to the Shah’s Iran that would be inclusive, humane, and sensitive to the human rights of all Iranians, but their voices did not prevail.

 

            I continue to believe that despite the dangers of visionary politics, it is the only hope we have as a species of creating a sustainable and just future for humanity.  In ending I should be clear that I have consistently supported reformist efforts in Iran over the years since the ouster of Banisadr and others, including the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and the more recent Green Revolution. As with the days of the Shah, Iran urgently requires an emancipatory politics that liberates from within, and regenerates the hopes of the Iranian people. What Iran does not need is an Israeli-American military strike or destabilization moves funded and promoted from without. Intervention by way of military attack, or even in the form of strong economic sanctions (as present), stabilize the regime in Tehran and impose added hardships on the Iranian people. As I have argued in the past the best and only acceptable way to address the questions of nuclear weapons in the Middle East is through establishing a nuclear weapons free zone that includes Israel. To avoid even the discussion of such an option illuminates the strategic submission of American foreign policy to Israeli governmental priorities even in cases such as this where the Israeli public is split and the response to an attack, if it happens, is likely to inflict severe harm on Israel, as well as to risk transforming the entire region into a war zone.

Kenneth Waltz is not Crazy, but he is Dangerous: Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East

6 Jul


  

            It seems surprising that the ultra-establishment journal, Foreign Affairs, would go to the extreme of publishing a lead article by the noted political scientist, Kenneth Waltz, with the title “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb” in its current issue. It is more the reasoning of the article than the eye-catching title that flies in the face of the anti-proliferation ethos that has been the consensus lynchpin of nuclear weapons states, and especially the United States. At the same time, Waltz takes pain to avoid disavowing his mainstream political identity. He echoes without pausing to reflect upon the evidence undergirding the rather wobbly escalating assumption that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons at this time. Waltz does acknowledge that Iran might be only trying to have a ‘breakout’ capability of the sort long possessed by Japan and several other countries, that is, the technological capacity if facing a national emergency to assemble a few bombs in a matter of months. Nowhere does Waltz allude to the recently publicized agreement among the 14 American intelligence agencies that there is no evidence that Iran has decided to resume its military program that had been reportedly abandoned in 2003. In other ways, as well, Waltz signals his general support for the American approach to Israeli security other than in relation to nuclear weapons, and so, it should be clear, Waltz is not a political dissenter, a policy radical, nor even a critic of Israel’s role in the region.

 

Waltz’s Three Options

 

            Waltz insists that aside from the breakout option, there are two other plausible scenarios worth considering: sanctions and coercive diplomacy to induce Iran “to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons,” which he deems unlikely to overcome a genuine appetite for the bomb, or Iran defies the pressures and acquires nuclear weapons, which he regards as the most desirable of the three options. It seems reasonable to wonder ‘why.’ In essence, Waltz is arguing that experience and logic demonstrate that the relations among states become more stable, less war-prone, when a balance is maintained, and that there is no reason to think that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons it would not behave in accordance with the deterrence regime that has discouraged all uses of nuclear weapons ever since 1945, and especially during the Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. In this regard, Waltz is expressing what I regard to be a wildly exaggerated faith in the rationality and prudence of leaders who make decisions on matters of war and peace.

 

            He does make a contextual argument that I mostly agree with, namely, that Israel alone possessing a regional nuclear monopoly is more dangerous and undesirable than Iran becoming a second nuclear weapons state in the region. In effect, a regional nuclear monopolist is worse than a regional system of balance that incorporates deterrence logic. For Israel to be deterred would contribute to peace and security in the region, and this seems likely to reduce somewhat, although at a level of risk far short of zero, the prospect of any use of nuclear weapons and other forms of aggression in the Middle East. But to say that A (Iran gets the bomb) is better than B (breakout capability but no bomb) and C (sanctions and coercive diplomacy induce Iran to forego bomb) is to forget about D, which is far better than A, B, and C in relation to sustainable stability, but also because it represents an implicit acknowledgement that the very idea of basing security upon the threat to annihilate hundreds of thousand, if not more, innocent persons is a moral abomination that has already implicated the nuclear weapons states in a security policy, which if ever tested by threat and use, would be genocidal, if not omnicidal, and certainly criminal. This anti-nuclear posture was substantially endorsed by a majority of judges in a groundbreaking Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on 8 July 1996, although these strong findings as to international law were, not surprisingly, cast aside and ignored by the nuclear weapons states, most defiantly by the United States.

 

The Case for Option D

 

            What then is Option D? Option D would involve the negotiation and implementation of a nuclear weapons free zone throughout the Middle East (MENFZ), reinforced by non-aggression commitments, normalization of economic and political relations, and ideally accompanied by genuine progress toward a just and sustainable Palestine/Israel peace accord. Significantly, Waltz does not even pause to consider it as in all likelihood he regards such an approach as completely inconsistent with the hard power realities of global diplomacy, making it foolish and irrelevant to take the possibility of a MENFZ seriously. Needless to say, D is also not in the Netanyahu playbook, and quite likely no future Israeli leader will be prepared to give up the nuclear weapons arsenal that Israel has been consistently acquiring and developing over the last four decades. And it seems fair to conjecture that anyone who proposes a MENFZ would be at odds with the realist camp in international relations, and such a piece would almost certainly be rejected by the editors of Foreign Affairs, among the most ardent guardians of the realist status quo.

 

            Waltz’s preference for A, favoring an Iranian bomb, is an extension of his long-standing belief that proliferation as actually desirable based on a view of global security that depends on sustaining power balances. In my judgment this carries confidence in the logic of deterrence (that is, the rationality of not using the bomb because of a fear of nuclear retaliation) to absurd degrees that go well beyond even the extreme rationality relied upon by the most influential war thinkers during the Cold War era. In this sense, Waltz is correct to equate the Middle East with the rest of the world, and not engage in the widespread practice of ethno-religious profiling: that is, Israel’s bomb is okay because it is a rational and ‘Western,’ while Iran’s bomb would be a world order disaster as it is irrational and governed by Islamic zealots that have declared their implacable hostility to Israel. If such distinctions are to be made, which is doubtful, it should be appreciated that Israel is the antagonist that has been threatening war and pushing for coercive diplomacy, while it is Iran that has so far peacefully tolerated a variety of severe provocations, acts of war, such as the assassination of several of its nuclear scientists, the infecting of its enrichment centrifuges with the Stuxnet virus, and verified violent covert acts designed to destabilize the Tehran regime. Had such incidents been reversed, it is more than 100% likely that Israel would have immediately gone to war against Iran, quite likely setting the entire region on fire.

 

Objections to Option A

 

            My basic objection to the Waltz position is a disagreement with two of his guiding assumptions: first, with respect to the region, that other countries would not follow Iran across the nuclear threshold, an assessment he bases largely on their failure to acquire nuclear weapons in response to Israel’s acquisition of the capability. Surely Saudi Arabia and Turkey would not, for reasons of international status and perceived security, want to be non-nuclear states in a neighborhood in which both Israel and Iran had the bomb. Such an expansion of the regional nuclear club would become more prone to accident, miscalculation, and the sort of social and political pathology that makes nuclear weaponry generally unfit for human use in a conflict, whatever the region or occasion. In this respect, the more governments possess the bomb, the more likely it becomes that one of those horrible scenarios about a nuclear war will become history.

 

            And secondly, Waltz does not single out nuclear weapons for condemnation on either ethical or prudential grounds. In fact, he seems to hold the view that we can be thankful for the bomb as otherwise the Cold War would likely have resulted in a catastrophic World War III. In my view to have sought the bomb and then used it against the helpless Japanese at the end of World War II was certainly one of the worst instances of Promethean excess in human history, angering not only the gods but exhibiting a scary species death wish. Leaders have acknowledged this moral truth from time to time, most recently by Barack Obama in his 2009 Prague speech calling for a world without nuclear weapons, but politicians, including Obama, seem unable and unwilling to take the heat that following through would certainly entail. In the end, anti-nuclearism for leaders seems mainly an exercise in rhetoric, apparently persuasive in Norway where the Nobel Prize committee annually ponders the credentials of candidates, but without any behavioral consequences relating to the weaponry itself.  To be sure nuclear policies are challenged from time to time by a surge of anti-nuclear populism. In this regard, to favor the acquisition of the bomb by any government or political organization is to embrace the nuclearist fallacy relating to security and the absurd hubris of presupposing an impeccable rationality over long stretches of time, which has never been the case in human affairs.

 

            The secrecy surrounding policy bearing on nuclear weapons, especially the occasions of their possible use, also injects an absolutist virus into the vital organs of a democratic body politic. There is no participation by the people or even their representatives in relation to this most ultimate of political decisions, vesting in a single person, and perhaps including his most intimate advisors, a demonic capability to unleash such a catastrophic capability. We now know that even beyond the devastation and radiation, the smoke released by the use of as few as 50 nuclear bombs would generate so much smoke as to block sunlight from the earth for as long as a decade, dooming much of the agriculture throughout the world, a dynamic that has been called ‘a nuclear famine.’ As disturbing as such a possibility should be to those responsible for the security of society, there is little evidence that such a realization of the secondary effects of nuclear explosions is even present in political consciousness. And certainly the citizenry is largely ignorant of such a dark eventuality bound up with the retention of nuclear weapons.

 

            It is for these reasons that I would call Kenneth Waltz dangerous, not crazy. Indeed, it is his extreme kind of instrumental rationality that is dominant in many influential venues, and helps explain the development, possession, and apparent readiness to use nuclear weapons under certain conditions despite the risks and the immorality of the undertaking. If human society is ever to be again relatively safe, secure, and morally coherent, a first step is to renounce nuclear weapons unconditionally and proceed with urgency by way of an agreed, phased, monitored, and verified international agreement to ensure their elimination from the face of the earth. It is not only that deterrence depends on perfect rationality over time and across space, it is also that the doctrine and practices of deterrence amounts to a continuing crime against humanity of unprecedented magnitude and clarity!    

 

  

Why Europe is not yet ‘A Culture of Peace’

5 Apr


             It is undoubtedly true that the greatest unacknowledged achievement of the European Union (EU) is to establish ‘a culture of peace’ within its regional enclosure for the 68 years since 1944. This has meant not only the absence of war in Europe, but also the absence of ‘war talk,’ threats, crises, and sanctions, with the single important exception of the NATO War of 1999 that was part of the fallout from the breakup of former Yugoslavia. This was undertaken by the American-led alliance both to accomplish the de facto independence of Kosovo from Serbian rule, to ensure the post-Cold War viability of NATO, to reinforce the lesson of the Gulf War (1991) that the West could win wars at low costs due to their military superiority, and to rescue Albanian Kosovars from a possible humanitarian catastrophe at the hands of their Serb oppressors.  The contrast with the first half of the 20th century is stark when Europe seemed definitely the global cockpit of the war system in the East-West struggle for global supremacy.  Millions of soldiers and civilian died in response to the two German attempts by force of arms to gain a bigger role within this European core of West-centric geopolitics. Germany challenged the established order not only by recourse to massive aggressive wars in the form of World War I and II, but also by establishing a diabolical political infrastructure that gave rise in the 1930s to the violently genocidal ideologies of Nazism and fascism.

 

Even during the Cold War decades, Europe was not really at peace, but always at the edge of yet another devastating. For the four decades of the Cold War there existed a constant threat of a war fought with nuclear weapons, a conflict that could have produced totally devastating warfare at any point resulting from provocative American-led deployments of nuclear weapons or inflammatory Soviet interventions in Eastern Europe, or from the periodically tense relations in the divided city of Berlin. Also, to some extent the Soviet Union, with its totalitarian variant of state socialism, was as much European as it was Asian, and thus to a degree the Cold War was being fought within Europe, although its violent dimensions were prudently limited to the global periphery. Despite the current plans to surround Russia with defensive missile systems, supposedly to construct a shield to stop Iranian missiles, there seems little threat of any war being fought within European space, and even a diplomatic confrontation seems improbable at this point. In many respects, the EU culture of peace, although partial and precarious, has been transformative for Europeans even if this most daring post-Westphalia experiment in regional integration and sovereignty has been wrongly assessed almost exclusively from an economistic perspective as measured by trade and investment statistics, and the strength of the Euro and the rate of economic growth. The deep financial crises afflicting its Mediterranean members captures the public imagination without any appreciation of this European contribution to peaceful regional governance.

 

Many foreign policy experts are tend to discount this claim of an internally peaceful Europe. First because it had the benefit of an external Soviet adversary that made a political consensus among European elites appear to be a condition of physical and ideological survival. Secondly, because it could count on the American military presence, hegemonically instrumentalized via NATO, to protect Europe and to soften the edges of any intra-European disagreements. This latter role helps us understand the deployment in Europe of American forces so long after the fighting stopped, even if gradually reduced from troop levels of over 300,000 to the present 50,000. Even this smaller military presence is maintained at high cost to the United States, but it is widely seen in Washington as both a guarantor of peace in Europe and as an expression of America’s global engagement and permanent repudiation of its earlier geopolitical stance toward Europe of what was called ‘isolationism.’ Such a stance was never truly descriptive of American foreign policy, which was almost from its time of independence was expansionist and disposed toward intervention in hemispheric affairs.

 

            While I would with some qualifications affirm the European experience with regionalism as a step forward from the perspective of global governance, there are some darker features of European behavior that need to be taken into account. The colonial powers did not give up their empires without a fight. While the EU was emerging from the wreckage of World War II, European powers fought some dirty wars in futile efforts to hold onto their overseas empires in such countries as Malaya, Indonesia, Indochina, and Algeria. In a sense, the European culture of violence toward non-Europeans was taken over by the United States in its almost continuous engagement in counterinsurgency warfare against the peoples and nations of the South, a mode of one-sided warfare that reached its climate during the Cold War in Vietnam and has risen to alarming levels of destructiveness in Afghanistan and Iraq.

 

            There are also some broader matters of global policy involved.  After the end of the Cold War, the Western security priorities shifted from the defense of Europe against a Soviet threat to an ongoing campaign led by the United States to control the geopolitics of energy. This refocusing shifted the fulcrum of world conflict from Europe to the Middle East, a process strongly reinforced by Washington’s willingness to follow Israel’s lead on most matter of regional security. In such settings external to the territorial domain of the EU, the approach adopted under American leadership has been premised on discretionary recourse to violence under NATO banners, as in Afghanistan and Libya, especially following the American resecuritization of world politics along liberal internationalist lines since the NATO War in Kosovo, and even more so after the 9/11 attacks. The recent buildup toward war against Iran, allegedly because it is on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons, is a further demonstration of the contrast between the EU as a European regional arrangement based on the rejection of war as a foreign policy option and NATO as a Western hierarchal alliance that performs as a discretionary mechanism of military intervention in the non-Western world, especially in the energy-rich countries of the Muslim Middle East.

 

Iran is the poster child of such separation of Europe as a zone of peace and the Islamic world as a zone of war. It is notable that the threats to attack Iran in the coming months and the imposition of four stages of crippling sanctions are premised on the unacceptability of Iran’s nuclear program, which is allegedly moving close to the threshold of nuclear weaponry. It could certainly be doubted whether if Iran was intent on acquiring nuclear weapons, and thereby violating its pledge under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, it would be grounds for recourse to force.  If the issue were to be more reasonably contextualized it would make us more aware of the relevance of Israel’s stealth acquisition and development of nuclear weapons, accumulating an arsenal estimated to exceed 300 warheads. The exclusions of geopolitical discourse, facilitated by a compliant media, allow Israel to lead the charge against Iran’s supposed quest for nuclear weapons without even an acknowledgement that in light of the overall realities the most prudent and equitable approach would be for all states in the region to unconditionally renounce their intention to acquire or possess this infernal weaponry of mass destruction.

 

But the situation is even more distressing than this shocking embrace of double standards. The available evidence makes it doubtful that Iran is even trying to become a nuclear weapons state. This conclusion is supported by an apparent agreement of all 16 American intelligence agencies that share the view that a high probability exists that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003, and has not resumed it. This intelligence consensus corresponds with the Iranian contention that it is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. The moves toward war against Iran have been amplified by repeated threats of attack in violation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, as well as by deliberately imposing punitive sanctions of intensifying severity and by engaging in provocative destabilizing intrusions on Iranian sovereignty taking the form of targeted killings of nuclear scientists and the encouragement of anti-regime violence. Europe is a willing junior partner of the United States in this post-colonial reassertion of Western interests in the oil-rich Middle East, and thus complements its imperfect regional culture of peace with a dangerous global culture of war and hegemony.

 

            As might be expected, this kind of European role external to Europe has sparked a variety of anti-European acts of violent opposition. In turn, Europe has turned in an Islamophobic direction, giving rise to anti-immigrant reactionary politics that are mainly directed against Islamic minorities living within its midst, to a reluctance to move down the road leading to Turkish accession to EU membership, and to various restrictions of religious freedom associated with the practice of religious Islamic women such as wearing a headscarf or burka.

 

            What is striking here is the dedication by the West to sustain by relying on its military superiority the colonial hierarchy of North/South relations in the post-colonial world order. The state system has been universalized since 1945, but the countries of the North, under American leadership, have continuously intervened to promote Western interests at the cost of millions of lives, first as an aspect of worldwide anti-Soviet and anti-Chinese geopolitics, and more recently, to secure oil reserves and to counter Islamic political moves to control national governance structures, as in Afghanistan. The West no longer seeks to fly its flag over the governmental buildings of non-Western countries, but it as hungry as ever for their resources, as well as to ensure receptivity to Western foreign investment and trade interests. Whether to slay the dragons of Communism or Islam, or to satisfy the bloodthirsty appetites of liberal internationalists that champion ‘humanitarian interventions,’ the dogs of war are still howling in the West. The doctrinal masks of law and a UN mandate obscure the realities of aggressive war making, but should not be allowed to deceive those genuinely dedicated to a peaceful and just world.  For one thing, we should not be fooled by belligerent governments relying on legitimizing imprimatur of the Responsibility to Protect—R2P—norm, as in Libya or Syria, to mount their military operations, while at the same time adhering to a non-interventionary ethos when it comes to Gaza, Kashmir, Chechnya, Kurdistan, Tibet). Of course, consistency is not the whole story, but it does penetrate the thick haze of geopolitical hypocrisy. More basic is the renunciation of violent geopolitics and reliance for social and political change on the dynamics of self-determination. Let us appreciate the biggest successes in the Arab Spring took place where the uprising were essentially non-violent and there was minimal external interference, and the most dubious outcomes have occurred where the anti-regime movement was violent and received decisive military assistance from without.

 

            Unfortunately, despite the complexities involved we cannot count on the United Nations partly because the veto creates a possibility to preclude appropriate responses (as in relation to Israeli abuses of Palestinians) or its failure to be used due to geopolitical pressures authorizes essentially unlawful warfare (as in relation to the Libyan intervention where opponents abstained rather than block military action). True, the UN can sometimes withhold its certification for aggression, as it did in 2003 when it rejected the American appeal for a mandate to invade and occupy Iraq, but even then it stood aside when the aggression took place, and even entered Iraq to take part in consolidating the outcome of the unlawful attacks. The UN can be useful in certain peacemaking and peacekeeping settings, but when it comes to war prevention it has lost credibility because tied too closely to the lingering dominance of Western geopolitics.

            These critical assessments highlight the need of persons seeking peace and justice to work within and beyond the established channels of institutional governance. And more specifically, to take note of what Europe has achieved, and might yet achieve, without overlooking past and present colonial and colonialist wrongdoing. In this respect, we need both a UN that becomes as detached as possible from its geopolitical minders and a robust global Occupy Movement that works to provide the peoples of the world with a democratic public order that protects our lives and is respectful of nature’s limits.  

Why not get the Law and Politics Right in Iran?

23 Mar

 

In his important article in the New York Times, March 17, 2012, James Risen summarized the consensus of the intelligence community as concluding that Iran abandoned its program to develop nuclear weapons in 2003, and that no persuasive evidence exists that it has departed from this decision. It might have been expected that such news based on the best evidence that billions spent to get the most reliable possible assessments of such sensitive security issues would produce a huge sigh of relief in Washington, but on the contrary it has been totally ignored, including by the highest officers in the government. The president has not even bothered to acknowledge this electrifying conclusion that should have put the brakes on what appears to be a slide toward a disastrous regional war. We must ask ‘why’ such a prudent and positive course of action has not been adopted, or at least explored,

 

Given that the American debate proceeds on the basis of the exact opposite assumption– as if Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons is a virtual certainty.  This contrary finding that it is a high probability that iran gave up its quest of nuclear weapons almost a decade ago is quite startling. Listening to the Republican presidential candidates or even to President Obama makes it still seem as if Iran is without doubt hell bent on having nuclear weapons at the earliest possible time. With such a misleading approach the only question that seems worth asking is whether to rely on diplomacy backed by harsh sanctions to achieve the desired goal or that only an early attack to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold.

 

It seems perverse that this public debate on policy toward Iran should be framed in such a belligerent and seemingly wrongheaded manner. After all the United States was stampeded into a disastrous war against Iraq nine years ago on the basis of deceptive reports about its supposed stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, trumped up exile allegations, and media hype. I would have assumed that these bad memories would make Washington very cautious about drifting toward war with Iran, a far more dangerous enemy than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It would seem that at present the politicians are distrustful of reassuring intelligence reports and completely willing to go along with the intelligence community when it counsels war as ‘a slam dunk.’

 

Reinforcing this skepticism about Iran’s nuclear intentions is a realistic assessment of the risk posed in the unlikely event that the intelligence community’s consensus is wrong, and Iran after all succeeds in acquiring nuclear weapons. As former heads of Mossad and others have pointed out the existential threat to Israel even then would still be extremely low. It would be obvious that Iran’s few bombs could never be used against Israel or elsewhere without producing an annihilating response. There is no evidence that Iran has any disposition to commit national suicide.

 

There is a further troubling aspect of how this issue is being addressed. Even in the Risen article it is presumed that if the evidence existed that Iran possesses a nuclear weapons program, a military attack would be a permissible option. Such a presumption is based on the irrelevance of international law to a national decision to attack a sovereign state, and a silent endorsement of ‘aggressive war’ that had been criminalized back in 1945 as the principal conclusion of the Nuremberg Judgment.

 

This dubious thinking has gone unchallenged in the media, in government pronouncements, and even in diplomatic posturing. We need to recall that at the end of World War II when the UN was established states agreed in the UN Charter to give up their military option except in clear instances of self-defense. To some extent over the years this prohibition has been eroded, but in the setting of Iran policy it has been all but abandoned without even the pressure of extenuating circumstances.

 

Of course, it would be unfortunate if Iran acquires nuclear weapons given the instability of the region, and the general dangers associated with their spread. But no international law argument or precedent is available to justify attacking a sovereign state because it goes nuclear. After all, Israel became a stealth nuclear weapons state decades ago without a whimper of opposition from the West, and the same goes for India, Pakistan, and even North Korea’s acquisition of weapons produced only a

muted response that soon dropped from sight.

 

There are better policy options that are worth exploring, which uphold international law and have a good chance of leading to regional stability. The most obvious option is containment that worked for decades against an expansionist Soviet Union with a gigantic arsenal of nuclear weapons. A second option would be to establish a nuclear weapons free zone for the Middle East, an idea that has been around for years, and enjoys the endorsement of most governments in the region, including Iran. Israel might seem to have the most to lose by a nuclear free zone in the Middle East because it alone currently possesses nuclear weapons, but Israel would benefit immensely by the reduction in regional tensions and probable economic and diplomatic side benefits, particularly if accompanied by a more constructive approach to resolving the conflict with the Palestinian people. The most ambitious option, given political credibility by President Obama in his Prague speech of 2009 expressing a commitment to a world without nuclear weapons, would be to table a proposal for complete nuclear disarmament on a step-by-step basis. Each of these approaches seem far preferable to what is now planned, are prudent, accord with common sense, show respect for international law, a passion for the peaceful resolution of conflict, and at minimum deserve to be widely discussed and appraised.

 

As it is there is no legal foundation in the Nonproliferation Treaty or elsewhere for the present reliance on threat diplomacy in dealing with Iran. These threats violate Article 2(4) of the UN Charter that wisely prohibits not only uses of force but also threats to use force. Iran diplomacy presents an odd case, as political real politik and international law clearly point away from the military option, and yet the winds of war are blowing ever harder. Perhaps even at this eleventh hour our political leaders can awake to realize anew that respect for international law provides the only practical foundation for a rational and sustainable foreign policy in the 21st century.

Turkey’s Foreign Policy: Zero Problems with Neighbors Revisited

8 Feb


            Pundits in Europe and North America in recent months have delighted in citing with a literary smirk ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ which has been the centerpiece of Ahmet Davutoglu’s foreign policy agenda since he became Foreign Minister on May 1, 2009. Mr. Davutoglu had previously served as Chief Advisor to both the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister ever since the AKP came to power in 2002, and was known in those years as the ‘architect’ behind the scenes. Critics of the zero problems approach point to the heightened Turkish tensions with Syria and Iraq, the persisting inability of Ankara to overcome the hostile fallout from Mavi Marmara incident with Israel, and even the revived salience of the long unresolved dispute with the Armenian diaspora sparked by a new French law that makes the denial of genocide associated with the 1915 massacres a crime and has led to a dramatic worsening of Turkish-French relations.

 

            Troubles to be sure, but should these be interpreted as ‘failures,’ and more precisely as ‘Turkish failures’? Perhaps, Davutoglu was insufficiently cautious, or alternatively too optimistic, when he articulated the zero problems diplomacy, but was it not at the time an accurate way of signaling a new dawn for Turkey’s approach to neighbors, especially its Arab neighbors, and actually, to the world as a whole. And Davutoglu implemented his lofty vision with a dizzying series of initiatives that opened long locked doors. He also made it clear that the neighborhood was not to be understood in a narrow geographical sense, but rather in as broad a sense as disclosed by cultural and historical affinities and mutual strategic interests. Davutoglu was eager not only to banish lingering bad memories associated with centuries of Ottoman rule over much of the Arab world, as well as to renew connections with countries that shared Turkic and Muslim identities.

 

            It should be recalled that Turkish foreign policy began charting this new course years before Davutoglu became Foreign Minister, and thus was a shift in worldview that was shared with Recip Tayyip Erdogan and Abudllah Gul, the two dominant political leaders during the past decade.  Indeed, both men deserve some of the credit, and a share of the responsibility, for steering the Turkish ship of state into such mainly uncharted waters of diplomatic initiative.

 

            In an important sense, the turning point came in 2003 when the Turkish government, after sending some mixed signals to Washington, finally refused to allow the United States to use its territory to stage an invasion of Iraq. At the time the anti-AKP domestic opposition challenged this unprecedented act of geopolitical insubordination by Ankara as the biggest mistake in the whole of Turkish republican history. In retrospect, this opting out of the invasion of Iraq constituted a transformational moment for Turkey that demonstrated to its neighbors and the world, and even to itself, that Turkey could and would think and act for itself when it comes to foreign policy, that the hierarchical alliances of the Cold War period were over, and that Washington should no longer take Ankara’s collaboration for granted. And yet this move did not mean, as some critics in both Turkey and the United States wrongly claimed, a turn toward Islam and away from the West or its continuing involvement in Western security arrangements. Even during the Iraq War Turkey allowed the Incirlik Air Base to be used by American combat aircraft, including for bombing missions. As recently shown, Turkey still values its NATO ties even to the extent of allowing radar stations to be deployed on its territory that is linked to a missile defense system that seems mainly intended to protect Europe, Israel, and the Gulf from Iran in the immediate future and possibly Russia in the long-term.

 

            By now it is almost forgotten that it was Turkey that encouraged peace talks between Syria and Israel to resolve their conflict that seemed to be headed for success until their abrupt breakdown, a development attributed at the time to the Israeli attacks on Gaza at the end of 2008, but in retrospect better understood as the unwillingness of Israel to give up its 1967 conquest and subsequent occupation of the Golan Heights. Turkey also sought to be a peacemaker further afield in the Balkans and Caucasus, doing the seemingly impossible, bringing Bosnia and Serbia together in a manner that moved these two antagonistic governments on a path leading to normalization and at least a cold peace. Even more ambitiously, in collaboration with Brazil, Turkey used its new stature as an independent regional player in May 2010 to persuade Tehran to accept an arrangement for the storage of a large portion of Iran’s enriched uranium in Turkey, thereby demonstrating the plausibility of a peaceful alternative to the United States/Israel posture of sanctions and warmongering.

 

            To be sure, the earlier sensible effort to have friendly relations with Syria has now badly backfired, but not until the regime in Damascus started the massive shooting of its citizens and refused to meet the demands of its people for far reaching reforms.  Arguably, the same reversal of outlook in Ankara occurred in relation to Libya after Qaddafi threatened to massacre his opposition, leading eventually to extending some Turkish humanitarian support for the UN-backed NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 that shaped the outcome of an ongoing internal struggle for control of the Libyan political future. Also, there is no doubt that the refusal of the European Union to shift its one-sided stance on Cyprus that is punitive toward Turkey has had some serious consequences. It has soured relations with Greece, producing a temporary deterioration that has taken place despite the Turkish show of reasonableness and exhibiting a spirit of compromise in relation to Cyprus. And, together with the recent Islamophobic surge in Europe, this perceived unfairness to Turkey with respect to Cyprus has reinforced the weakening of an earlier Turkish commitment to qualify for membership in the EU. 

 

            Even with Israel, despite the strong sympathies of the Turkish public with the struggle of the Palestinians, the AKP leadership has done its best to restore normalcy to the relationship between the two countries. After all, the May 31, 2010 attack by Israel’s navy in international waters on the Mavi Marmara carrying humanitarian activists and assistance to Gaza and challenging the Israeli blockade was not only a flagrant breach of international law but resulted in the death of nine Turkish passengers. Turkey has demanded an official apology and compensation for the families of the victims, a reasonable set of expectations that was apparently on the verge of acceptance by Tel Aviv, but collapsed at the last hour when challenged by the internal political opposition to Netanyahu led by the super-hawk foreign minister, Avigdor Liebermann, now under government investigation for fraud.

 

            What this brief overview argues is that Turkey has consistently tried to avert recourse to intervention and war in the Middle East and to promote diplomatic approaches that rely to the extent possible on soft power. It has, to be sure, experienced several geopolitical rebuffs, as in relation to its efforts to end the confrontation with Iran, impressively refusing to stay in line behind the bellicose leadership of the United States and Israel. Davutoglu has correctly affirmed Turkey’s resolve to act on the principled basis of its values and convictions, as well as strategic calculations of its interests, in the post-Cold War politics of the region, and not blindly follow directives from Washington. Iran is a striking case where the Turkish approach, although seemingly incapable of stemming the drift toward war being mounted by the West, is both wiser and more likely to achieve the goal of reassuring the world that Tehran means what it says when it insists that it does not intend to acquire nuclear weapons. As in every other foreign policy setting, Davutoglu is exhibiting his belief that in the 21st century persuasion works better than coercion when it comes to achieving political goals without even considering the costs of death, devastation, and displacement.

 

            In sum, the zero problems with neighbors as a touchstone to Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East and the world needs to be understood as an aspiration and strong preference rather than as an invariable and inflexible guide to practice. There are too many contradictions embedded in the political realities of the contemporary world to be slavishly tied to a rigid foreign policy doctrine that is incapable of taking account of context and shifting perceptions and interests. For instance, in Syria and Libya the Turkish government was forced to choose between siding with a regime slaughtering its own people and backing a disorganized opposition in its heroic if clouded efforts to democratize and humanize the governing process.  Of course, there are suspicions that Turkey’s support for the anti-Assad insurgency also reflects a disguised preference for a Sunni opposition that is anchored, if at all, in the Muslim Brotherhood as compared to the secular authoritianism of the Damascus regime. As well, there are speculations that in the ongoing regional struggle for ascendancy Turkey would rather in the end side with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, reinforced by the United States, than Iran and a newly engaged Russia.

 

Zero problems needs to be understood as a preferred framework for addressing the relations between countries, not just governments, and in situations of strife choices must be made. Arguably Turkey went too far when it backed NATO in Libya and the UN Security Council with respect to Syria or not far enough when it failed to show support for the Green Revolution in Iran after the stolen elections of June 2009. These are difficult interpretative choices upon which reasonable persons of good faith can disagree. Whatever the policies pursued in specific situations,  they do not necessarily invalidate the principled positions articulated by Davutoglu since he became Foreign Minister. Davutoglu has repeatedly affirmed these principles as being as important for him as are realist calculations in shaping foreign policy in complex situations. Possibly, if the Green Revolution had shown more persistence and promise or the Iranian regime had engaged in more widespread killing of its people Turkey would have made a ‘Syrian choice.’

 

            Davutoglu on more than one occasion has expressed enthusiastic support for the upheavals grouped together under the banner of ‘the Arab Spring.’ He calls these upheavals great historical transformations that are irreversible, and expressions of a thirst by young people in their respective countries for lives of dignity and democratic freedoms. There is nothing that Turkey has done to thwart these high ideals.

 

            In this respect, I think it is possible to reach an assessment of Turkish foreign policy as of early 2012. It has charted a course of action based to the extent feasible on soft power diplomacy, taking numerous initiatives to resolve its conflicts with neighbors but also to offer its good offices to mediate and unfreeze conflicts between states to which it is not a party. Its credibility has become so great that Istanbul has replaced European capitals as the preferred venue for conflict resolution whether in relation to Afghanistan or even Iran, and despite its much publicized diplomatic differences with Washington. It is notable that despite Western annoyance with Ankara regarding Iran or resulting from the simmering dispute with Israel, the U.S. Government seems to favor Istanbul as the most propitious site for any prospective negotiations with Iran concerning its nuclear program.

 

            At the same time, as the policy reversals with respect to Syria and Libya illustrate, it is not always possible to avoid taking sides in response to internal struggles, although Turkey has delayed doing so to give governments in power the opportunity to establish internal peace. In a globalizing world boundaries are not absolute, and sovereignty must give way if severe violations of human rights are being committed by the regime. Even in such extreme circumstances armed intervention should always be a last resort, and one only undertaken in extreme instances on behalf of known opposition forces and in a manner that has a reasonable prospect of cumulative benefits at acceptable costs for the targeted society. Such conditions almost never exist, and so intervention under present world conditions is rarely if ever, in my judgment, justified, although bloodshed, oppression, and crimes against humanity may generate strong public and governmental support for interventionary diplomacy.

 

            We can only hope that Turkey stays the Dautoglu course, pursuing every opening that enables positive mutual relations among countries and using its diplomatic stature to encourage peaceful conflict resolution wherever possible. Rather than viewing ‘zero problems’ as a failure, it should be a time to reaffirm the creativity of Turkish foreign policy in the course of the last decade that has shown the world the benefits of soft power diplomacy, and a pattern that other governments might learn from while adapting to their own realities. This diplomacy, as supplemented by Turkey’s economic success and political stability, helps us appreciate the deserved popularity of and respect for the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, throughout the region and the world.

Nuclear Free Middle East: Desirable, Necessary, and Impossible

28 Jan

            Finally, there is some argumentation in the West supportive of a nuclear free zone for the Middle East. Such thinking is still treated as politically marginal, and hardly audible above the beat of the war drums. It also tends to be defensively and pragmatically phrased as in the NY Times article by Shibley Telhami and Steven Kull (I.15..2012) with full disclosure title, “Preventing a Nuclear Iran.” The article makes a prudential argument against attacking Iran based on prospects of a damaging Iranian retaliation and the inability of an attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear program at an acceptable cost. The most that could be achieved for would be a short delay in Iran’s acquisition of weaponry, and maybe not even that. An attack seems likely to create irresistible pressure in Iran to everything possible to obtain a nuclear option with a renewed sense of urgency.

            This argument is sensibly reinforced by pointing to respected public opinion surveys that show Israeli attitudes to be less war-inclined than had been generally assumed. According to a Israeli recent poll, only 43% of Israelis favoring a military strike, while 64% favored establishing a nuclear free zone (NFZ) in the region that included Israel. In effect, then, establishing a NFZ that includes Israel would seem politically feasible, although not a course of action that would be entertained by the current Tel Aviv governmental political climate. We can conclude that the silence of Washington with respect to such an alternative approach to the dispute with Iran confirms what is widely believed, namely, that the U.S. Government adheres to the official Israeli line, and is not particularly sensitive to the wishes of the Israeli public even to the extent of serving America’s own strong national interest in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict.

            A variant of NFZ thinking has recently been attributed to Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal, former Saudi ambassador to the United States and once the head of Saudi intelligence. He too argues that NFZ is a better alternative than the military option, which he contends should be removed from the table. Prince Turki insists that sanctions have not altered Iran’s behavior. His proposal is more complex than simply advocating a NFZ. He would favor sanctions against Iran is there is convincing evidence that it is seeking nuclear weapons, but he also supports sanctions imposed on Israel if it does not disclose openly the full extent of its nuclear weapons arsenal.  His approach has several additional features: extending the scope of the undertaking to all weapons of mass destruction (WMD), that is, including biological and chemical weapons; establishing a nuclear security umbrella for the region by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council; and seeking a resolution of outstanding conflicts in the region in accordance with the Mecca Arab proposals of 2002 that calls for Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights occupied in 1967, as well as the political and commercial normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world.

            Prince Turki warns that if such an arrangement is not soon put in place, and Iran proceeds with its nuclear program, other countries in the region, including Turkey, are likely to be drawn into an expensive and destabilizing nuclear arms race. In effect, as with Telhami and Kull, Prince Turki’s approach is designed to avoid worst case scenarios, but is framed mainly in relation to the future of the region rather than confined to the Israel/Iran confrontation.  

It concretely urges establishing such a framework with or without Israeli support at a conference of parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty scheduled for later in the year in Finland. Israel, not a party to the NPT, has not indicated its willingness to attend the conference at this point. As long ago as the 1995 NPT Review Conference the Arab countries put forward a proposal to establish in the Middle East a WMD free zone, but it has never been acted upon at any subsequent session. Israel, which is not a member of the NPT, has consistently taken the position over the years that a complete peace involving the region must precede any prohibition directed at the possession of nuclear weapons.

            The NFZ or WMDFZ initiatives need to be seen in the setting established by the NPT regime. An initial observation involves Israel’s failure to become a party to the NPT coupled with its covert nuclear program that resulted in the acquisition of the weaponry with the complicity of the West as documented in Seymour Hersh’s 1991 The Samson Option.  Such a pattern of behavior needs to be contrasted with that of Iran, a party to the NPT that has reported to and accepted, with some friction, inspections on its territory by the Western oriented International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran has consistently denied any ambition to acquire nuclear weapons, but has insisted on its rights under Article IV of the treaty to exercise “..its inalienable right..to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination..” Iran has been under constant threat of an attack by Israel, the target for several years of Israel’s dirty low intensity war, the target of a Congressionally funded destabilization program of the United States reinforced by a diplomacy that constantly reaffirms the relevance of the military option, and operates in a political climate that excludes consideration of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. What is surprising under these circumstances is that Iran has not freed itself from NPT obligation by exercising its option to withdraw from the treaty as it entitled to do by Article X provided only that it gives notice to other treaty parties and an explanation of its reasons for withdrawing.

            Comparing these Israeli and Iran patterns of behavior with respect to nuclear weapons, it is difficult not to conclude that it is Israel, not Iran, that should be subjected to sanctions, and pressure to participate in denuclearizing negotiations. After all, Israel acquired the weaponry secretly, has not been willing to participate in the near universal discipline to the NPT, and has engaged in aggressive wars repeatedly against its neighbors resulting in long-term occupations. It can be argued that Israel was entitled to enhance its security by remaining outside the NPT, and thus is acting within its sovereign rights. This is a coherent legalistic position, but we should all realize by now that the NPT is more a geopolitical than a legal regime, and that Iran, for instance, would be immediately subject to a punitive response if it tried to withdraw from the treaty. In other words geopolitical priorities override legal rights in the NPT setting.

         The NPT is shaped by its geopolitical nature. This is best illustrated by the utter refusal of the nuclear weapons states, above all the United States, to fulfill its obligation under Article VI “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” The International Court of Justice in its 1996 Advisory Opinion on The Legality of Nuclear Weapons unanimously affirmed in its findings the legal imperative embodied in Article VI: “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament in all its aspects under strict international control.” This finding that has been completely ignored by the nuclear weapons states (who had earlier made a furious failed effort to dissuade the UN General Assembly from seeking guidance from the ICJ with respect to the legal status of nuclear weapons and the obligations of the NPT). The refusal to uphold these obligations of Article VI would certainly appear to be a material breach of the treaty that authorizes any party to regard the treaty as void. Again the international discourse on nuclear weapons is so distorted that it is a rarity to encounter criticism of its discriminatory application, its double standards as between nuclear and non-nuclear states, and its geopolitical style of selective enforcement. In this regard it should be appreciated that the threat of military attack directed at Iran resembles reliance on the so-called Bush Doctrine of preventive war that had been used to justify aggression against Iraq in 2003.

            In summary, it is of utmost importance to avoid a war in the Middle East arising from the unresolved dispute about Iran’s nuclear program. One way to do this is to seek a NFZ or a WMDFZ for the entire region that includes the participation of Israel. What has given this approach a renewed credibility for the West is that it seems the only way to avoid a lose/lose war option, that it possesses some prudential appeal to change minds in Tehran and Tel Aviv, and also to engage Washington in a less destructive and self-destructive course of action. Whether this prudential appeal is sufficiently strong to overcome the iron cage of militarism that guides policy choices in Israel and the United States remains doubtful. Thinking outside the militarist box remains a forbidden activity, partly reflecting the domestic lock on the political and moral imagination of these countries by their respective military industrial media think tank complexes.

            I would conclude this commentary with three pessimistic assessments that casts a dark shadow over the regional future:

(1)  an NFZ or WMDFZ for the Middle East is necessary and desirable, but it almost certainly will not placed on the political agenda of American-led diplomacy relating to the conflict;

(2)  moves toward nuclear disarmament negotiations that have been legally mandated and would be beneficial for the world, and for the nuclear weapons states and their peoples, will not be made in the current atmosphere that blocks all serious initiatives to abolish nuclear weapons;

(3)   the drift toward a devastating attack on Iran will only be stopped by an urgent mobilization of anti-war forces in civil society, which seems unlikely given other preoccupations.  

 

 

Stop Warmongering in the Middle East

20 Jan

 

            The public discussion in the West addressing Iran’s nuclear program has mainly relied on threat diplomacy, articulated most clearly by Israeli officials, but enjoying the strong direct and indirect backing of Washington and leading Gulf states.  Israel has also engaged in covert warfare against Iran in recent years, somewhat supported by the United States, that has inflicted violent deaths on civilians in Iran. Many members of the UN Security Council support escalating sanctions against Iran, and have not blinked when Tel Aviv and Washington talk menacingly about leaving all options on the table, which is ‘diplospeak’ for their readiness to launch a military attack. At last, some signs of sanity are beginning to emerge to slow the march over the cliff. For instance, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, commented harshly on this militarist approach: “I have no doubt that it would pour fuel on a fire which is already smoldering, the hidden smoldering fire of Sunni-Shia confrontation, and beyond that [it would cause] a chain reaction. I don’t know where it would stop.” And a few days ago even the normally hawkish Israeli Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, evidently fearful of international panic and a preemptive response by Tehran, declared that any decision to launch a military attack by Israel is ‘very far off,’ words that can be read in a variety of ways, mostly not genuinely reassuring.

 

            It is not only an American insistence, despite pretending from time to time an interest in a diplomatic solution, that only threats and force are relevant to resolve this long incubating political dispute with Iran, but more tellingly, it is the stubborn refusal by Washington to normalize relations with Iran, openly repudiate the Israeli war drums, and finally accept the verdict of history in Iran adverse to its strategic ambitions. The United States has shown no willingness despite the passage of more than 30 years to accept the outcome of Iran’s popular revolution of 1978-79 that nonviolently overthrew the oppressive regime of the Shah. We need also to remember that the Shah had been returned to power in 1953 thanks to the CIA in a coup against the constitutional and democratically elected government of Mohamed Mossadegh, whose main crime was to nationalize the Iranian oil industry. This prolonged unwillingness of Washington to have normal diplomatic contact with Iran has been a sure recipe for international tension and misunderstanding, especially taking into account this historical background of American intervention in Iran, as well as the thinly disguised interest in recovering access to Iran’s high quality oil fields confirmed by its willingness to go along with Israel’s militarist tactics and diplomacy.

 

            This conflict-oriented mentality is so strong in relation to Iran than when others try their best to smooth diplomatic waters, as Brazil and Turkey did in the May 2010, the United States angrily responds that such countries should mind their own business, which is an arrogant reprimand, considering that Turkey is Iran’s next door neighbor, and has the most to lose if a war results from the unresolved dispute involving Iran’s contested nuclear program. It should be recalled that in 2010 Iran formally agreed with leaders from Brazil and Turkey to store half or more of its then stockpile of low enriched uranium in Turkey, materials that would be needed for further enrichment if Iran was truly determined to possess a nuclear bomb as soon as possible. Instead of welcoming this constructive step back from the precipice Washington castigated the agreement as diversionary, contending that it interfered with the mobilization of support in the Security Council for ratcheting up sanctions intended to coerce Iran into giving up its right to a complete nuclear fuel cycle. Such criticism of Turkey and Brazil for its engagement with peace diplomacy contrasts with its tacit endorsement of Israeli recourse to terrorist tactics in its efforts to destabilize Iran, or possibly to provoke Iran to the point that it retaliates, giving Tel Aviv the pretext it seems to seek to begin open warfare.

 

Iran is being accused of moving toward a ‘breakout’ capability in relation to nuclear weapons, that is, possessing a combination of knowhow and enough properly enriched uranium to produce nuclear bombs within a matter of weeks, or at most months. Tehran has repeatedly denied any intention to become a nuclear weapons state, but has insisted all along that it has the same legal rights under the Nonproliferation Treaty as such other non-nuclear states as Germany and Japan, and this includes the right to have a complete nuclear fuel cycle, which entails enrichment capabilities and does imply a breakout capability. In the background, it should be realized that even the 1968 Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons contains a provision that allows a party to withdraw from the obligations under the treaty if it gives three months notice and ‘decides that extraordinary events..have jeopardized its supreme national interests.’(Article X) Such a provision, in effect, acknowledges the legal right of a country to determine its own security requirements in relation to nuclear weapons, a right that both the United States and Israel in different ways have implicitly exercised for decades with stunning irresponsibility that includes secrecy, a failure to pursue nuclear disarmament that is an obligation of the treaty, and a denial of all forms of international accountability. The real ‘threat’ posed by a hypothetical Iran bomb is to Israel’s regional monopoly over nuclear weapons. As three former Mossad chiefs have stated, even if Iran were to acquire a few nuclear bombs, Israel would still face no significant additional threat to its security or existence, as any attack would be manifestly suicidal, and Iran has shown no such disposition toward recklessness in its foreign policy.

 

            To be objective commentators we must ask ourselves whether Iran’s posture toward its nuclear program is unreasonable under these circumstances. Is not Iran a sovereign state with the same right as other states to uphold its security and political independence when facing threats from its enemies armed with nuclear weapons? When was the last time resorted to force against a hostile neighbor? The surprising answer is over 200 years ago! Can either of Iran’s antagonists claim a comparable record of living within its borders? Why does Iran not have the same right as other states to take full advantage of nuclear technology? And given Israeli hostility, terrorist assaults, and military capabilities that includes sophisticated nuclear warheads, delivery style, and a record of preemptive war making, would it not be reasonable for Iran to seek, and even obtain, a nuclear deterrent? True, the regime in Iran has been oppressive toward its domestic opposition and its president has expressed anti-Israeli views in inflammatory language (although exaggerated in the West), however unlike Israel, without ever threatening or resorting to military action. It should also be appreciated that Iran has consistently denied an intention to develop nuclear weaponry, and claims only an interest in using enriched uranium for medical research and nuclear energy. Even if there are grounds to be somewhat skeptical about such reassurances, given the grounds for suspicion that have been ambiguously and controversially validated by reports from International Atomic Energy Agency, this still does not justify sanctions, much less threats backed up by deployments, war games, projected attack scenarios, and a campaign of terrorist violence.

 

            So far no prominent advocates of confrontation with Iran have been willing to acknowledge the obvious relevance of Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Is not the actuality of nuclear weaponry, not only an Iranian breakout potential but a substantial arsenal of Israeli weaponry secretly acquired (200-300 warheads), continuously upgraded, and coupled with the latest long distance delivery capabilities, the most troublesome threat to regional stability and peace? At minimum, are not Israel’s nuclear weapons stockpile highly relevant both to bring stability and for an appraisal of Iran’s behavior? The United States and Israel behave in the Middle East as if the golden rule of international politics is totally inapplicable, that you can do unto others, what you are unwilling to have them do unto you!

 

            We need, as well, to remember the lessons of recent history bearing on the counter-proliferation tactics relied upon in recent years by the United States. Iraq was attacked in 2003 partly because it did not have any nuclear weapons, while North Korea has been spared such a comparably horrific fate because it possesses a retaliatory capability that would likely be used if attacked, and has the capability to inflict severe harm on neighboring countries. If this experience relating to nuclear weapons is reasonably interpreted it could incline governments that have hostile relations to the West to opt for a nuclear weapons option as necessary step to discourage attacks and interventions. Surely putting such reasoning into practice would not be good for the region, possibly igniting a devastating war, and almost certainly leading to the spread of nuclear weapons to other Middle Eastern countries. Instead of moving to coerce, punish, and frighten Iran in ways that are almost certain to increase the incentives of Iran and others to possess nuclear weaponry, it would seem prudent and in the mutual interest of all to foster a diplomacy of de-escalation, a path that Iran has always signaled its willingness to pursue. And diplomatic alternatives to confrontation and war exist, but require the sort of political imagination that seems totally absent in the capitals of hard power geopolitics.  

 

            It should be obvious to all but the most dogmatic warmongers that the path to peace and greater stability in the region depends on taking two steps long overdue, and if not taken, at least widely debated in public: first, establishing a nuclear free Middle East by a negotiated and monitored agreement that includes all states in the region, including Israel and Iran; secondly, an initiative promoted by the United Nations and backed by a consensus of its leading members to outline a just solution for the Israel/Palestine conflict that is consistent with Palestinian rights under international law, including the Palestinian right of self-determination, which if not accepted by Israel (and endorsed by the Palestinian people) within twelve months would result in the imposition of severe sanctions. Not only would such initiatives promote peace and prosperity for the Middle East, but this turn to diplomacy and law would serve the cause of justice both by putting an end to the warmongering of recent years and to the intolerable denial of rights to the Palestinian people that goes back to at least 1947, and was later intensified by the oppressive occupation of East Jerusalem, West Bank, and Gaza that resulted from the outcome of the 1967 War.

 

            These manifestly beneficial alternatives to sanctions and war is neither selected, nor even considered in the most influential corridors of opinion-making. It is simple to explain why: world order continues to be largely shaped by the rule of power rather than the rule of law, or by recourse to the realm of rights, and no where more so than in the Middle East where the majority of the world’s oil reserves are located, and where an expansionist Israel refuses to make real peace with its neighbors while subjugating the Palestinian people to an unendurable ordeal. Unfortunately, a geopolitical logic prevails in world politics, which means that inequality, hierarchy, and hard power control the thought and action of powerful governments whenever toward strategic interests are at stake. Perhaps, a glance at recent history offers the most convincing demonstration of the validity of this assessment: Western military interventions in Iraq and Libya, as well as the intimidating threats of attacks on Iran, three states in the region with oil and regimes unfriendly to the West. Egypt and Tunisia, the first-born children of the Arab Spring, were undoubtedly politically advantaged by not being major oil producing states, although Egypt is not as lucky as Tunisia because Israel and the United States worry that a more democratic Egyptian government might abandon the 1978 Peace Treaty and show greater solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, and are doing what they can to prevent Cairo from moving in such directions.

 

            Fortunately, there is a growing, although still marginal, recognition that despite all the macho diplomacy of recent years, a military option is not really viable. It would not achieve its objective of destroying Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and it would in all likelihood confirm the opinions among Iranian hawkish factions that only the possession of nuclear weapons will keep their country from facing the catastrophe brought on by a military attack. Beyond this, attacking Iran would almost certainly unleash retaliatory responses, possibly blocking the Straits of Hormuz, which carry 20% of the world’s traded oil, and possibly leading to direct missile strikes directed at Israel and some of the Gulf countries. Given this prospect, there is beginning to be some indication that the West is at last beginning to consider alternatives to hot war in responding to Iran.

 

            But so far this realization is leading not to the peaceful initiatives mentioned earlier, but to a reliance on ‘war’ by other means. The long confrontation with Iran has developed its own momentum that makes any fundamental adjustment seem politically unacceptable to the United States and Israel, a sign of weakness and geopolitical defeat. And so as the prospect of a military attacked is temporarily deferred for reasons of prudence, as Barak confirmed, but in its place is put this intensified and escalating campaign of violent disruption, economic coercion, and outright terrorism. Such an ongoing effort to challenge Iran has produced a series of ugly and dangerous incidents that might at some point in the near future provoke a hostile Iranian reaction, generating a sequence of action and reaction that could plunge the region into a disastrous war and bring on a worldwide economic collapse.

 

            The main features of this disturbing pattern of covert warfare are becoming clear, and are even being endorsed in liberal circles because such a course of action is seen as less harmful to Western interests than an overt military attack, proceeding on the assumptions that are no better alternatives than confrontation in some form.  Israel, with apparent American collaboration, assassinates Iranian nuclear scientists, infects Iranian nuclear centrifuges used to enrich uranium with a disabling Stuxnet virus, and recruits Iranians to join Jundallah, an anti-regime terrorist organization in Iran, to commit acts of violence against civilian targets, such as the 2009 attack on the mosque in Zahedan that killed 25 worshippers and wounded many others. The New York Times in an editorial  (January 13, 2012) describes these tactics dispassionately without ever taking note of their objectionable moral or legal character: “An accelerating covert campaign of assassinations, bombings, cyber attacks and defections—carried out mainly by Israel, according to The Times—is slowing..[Iran’s nuclear] program, but whether that is enough is unclear.” The editorial observes that “a military strike would be a disaster,” yet this respected, supposedly moderate, editorial voice only questions whether such a pattern of covert warfare will get the necessary job done of preventing Iran from possessing a nuclear option sometime in the future.

 

            It should be obvious that if it was Iran that was engaging in similar tactics to disrupt Israeli military planning or to sabotage Israel’s nuclear establishment liberal opinion makers in the West would be screaming their denunciations of Iran’s barbaric lawlessness. Such violations of Israel sovereignty and international law would be certainly regarded by the West as unacceptable forms of provocation that would fully justify a major Israeli military response, and make the outbreak of war seem inevitable and unavoidable.

 

            And when Iran did recently react to the prospect of new international sanctions making its sale of oil far more difficult by threatening to block passage through the Straights of Hormuz, the United States reacted by sending additional naval vessels to the area and warning Tehran that any interference with international shipping would be ‘a red line’ leading to U.S. military action. It should be incredible to appreciate that assassinating nuclear scientists in Iran is okay with the arbiters of international behavior while interfering with the global oil market crosses a war-provoking red line. These self-serving distinctions illustrate the dirty work of geopolitics in the early 21st century.

 

            There are some lonely voices calling for a nuclear free Middle East and a just settlement of the Israeli/Palestine conflict, but even with credentials like long service in the CIA or U.S. State Department, these calls are almost totally absent in the mainstream discourse that controls debate in the United States and Israel. When some peaceful alternatives are entertained at all it is always within the framework of preventing Iran doing what it seems entitled to do from the perspectives of law and prudence. I am afraid that only when and if a yet non-existent Global Occupy Movement turns its attention to geopolitics will the peoples of the Middle East have some reason to hope for a peaceful and promising future for their region.    

Criminalizing Diplomacy: Fanning the Flames of the Iran War Option

11 Nov

 

            How many times have we heard in recent weeks either outright threats to attack Iran mainly emanating from Israel or the more muted posture adopted by the United States that leaves ‘all options’ on the table including ‘the military option’? What has Iran done to justify this frantic war-mongering in a strategic region that is sorting out the contradictory effects of the long Arab Spring and is the contested site of energy geopolitics that has replaced territory and minerals as the core issue of world politics?

 

            As a matter of historical context, it is worth observing that the Western military interventions of recent years, Iraq and Libya, were both in oil-producing countries, devastating the country to achieve regime change, which remains the central tenet of the neocon/Netanyahu vision for a reconfiguration of power in the Middle East. It follows that Iran remains the only oil producer in the region that refuses to play nicely with West, and has been sanctioned to some degree ever since it achieved an anti-Western regime change back in 1979. In this setting of pre-war hysteria—pouring the fuel of rumor and threat on the fire of belligerent diplomacy—I have no intention of discounting the grievances of those who bravely opposed the theocratic regime from within after the fraudulent elections of June 2009 in the shape of the repressed Green Movement, but it is beside the point in the present debate.

 

            Why talk of oil if the war momentum is explicitly preoccupied with the alleged effort by Iran to obtain nuclear weapons? Let the facts speak for themselves. Where there is oil and an anti-Western government in power, recourse to the military option follows, or at least an insistence on sanctions that aim to be crippling and regime-changing. Just as in Iraq, the smokescreen in 2003 were its stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, and when that war justifying scenario was discredited, democracy and human rights abruptly took over as the strategic rationale. Not to be overlooked, of course, was backroom Israeli pressures to destroy the Baghdad regime of Saddam Hussein,  as well as the oil, involving both favorable access to the oil fields and some leverage over pricing. We all need to be reminded over and over again that Western prosperity rested on cheap oil, and its future prospects crucially depend on reliable supplies of oil at moderate prices. We need to be reminded because as Donald Rumsfeld once reassured the world, ‘America doesn’t do empire.’ Really! Concerns about oil security in the future are the real unacknowlegeable threats to the security of the West!

 

            Such illicit interventionary diplomacy should be unmasked. For once we can look to Moscow for a benign clarification. The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Gennady Galitov, was quoted as follows: “The world community will see additional sanctions against Iran as an instrument of regime change in Tehran. We cannot accept this approach.” The plausibility of this interpretation is given further credibility by Iranian exile voices calling for targeting Iran’s central bank and currency with the avowed intention of bringing such hardship to the people of Iran as to mount destabilizing pressures from below on the Tehran government. The leader of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi, has repeatedly spoken against international sanctions, insisting that they hurt the people of Iran and strengthen the hold of the government on the population. The struggle for Iranian self-determination must be waged by the Iranian people, not their self-interested patrons from without. Such patrons heeded in the Iraq case, and recently influential in the Libyan case as well, contribute to a war making process that leaves their country in shambles. True, the West is at first ready, but not able, to pick up the pieces. The result is continuous unresolved violent conflict, acute and widespread human insecurity, followed by eventual abandonment of the post-war reconstructive commitment. Iraq is tragically illustrative.

 

            As has been pointed out by some opponents of this war fever, Iran has not attacked another country in 200 years. As President Ahmadinejad recently informed Iranians in the city of Shahr-e Kord: “The Iranian nation is wise. It won’t build two bombs against the 20,000 you have.” The former heads of Israel’s Mossad, Meir Dagan and Efraim Halevy, confirm the view that Israel would not be seriously threatened even if it should turn out that Iran does come to possess a few nuclear weapons in the future. Their contention would be that such a nuclear capability would only pose a threat for Iran’s Sunni rivals, especially Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, as Israel would retain an overwhelming deterrent even without American backing. Of course, it is true that the Western alliance does not want any regional developments to destabilize its regional friends, no matter how autocratic and repressive. So much for the supposed Western embrace of the democratizing spirit of the Arab Spring! For hypocritical William Hague, the pro-Israeli Foreign Secretary of Great Britain to say that Iran’s nuclear program is threatening ‘to undermine’ the Arab Spring by ‘bringing about a nuclear arms race in the Middle East of the risk of conflict’ is obviously to point his finger in the wrong direction. There are also murmurs in the background, perhaps to shift attention away from Israeli war-mongering, to the effect that the real danger associated with Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons is that Turkey and Saudi Arabia would follow suit.

 

            If these were the serious concerns of this kind there are other far better ways to proceed. Why is there no mention of Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal, of Western unlawful assistance in helping Israel to cross the nuclear threshold covertly, of Israel being one of three important states in the world that has refused to become a party to the Nonproliferation Treaty, and of Israel’s refusal to discuss even the idea of a nuclear free zone in the Middle East that Iran has announced its readiness to join? If oil is the foremost reality of which we must not speak, then Israeli nuclearism is a close second. We understand that the Obama presidency has been reduced to silence, but why are no regional and global voices speaking on behalf of nuclear sanity?  Is Israel’s status as a nuclear weapons state as untouchable a feature of a dysfunctional system of global governance as the retention of Britain and France as two of five permanent members of the UN Security Council? Such sacred cows of an entrenched world order are dooming the 99% as much as the demons of Wall Street!

 

            And then there is a third reality of this deepening crisis of which we are blinkered by a compliant media not to notice: the total disregard in the public policy debate of international law that prohibits all non-defensive uses of force, including threats to do so. This core norm of the UN Charter set forth in the language of Article 2(4), reinforced by the International Court of Justice in the Nicaragua case in 1986, was built into the idea of Crimes Against Peace that served as the basis for indicting and convicting surviving German and Japanese leaders at the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after World War II. There is not even a lawyerlike attempt to argue that Bush’s discredited doctrine of preemptive war applies to Iran, there is instead a presumed total irrelevance of international law to the policy debate. To discuss the military option as if not circumscribed by solemn legal commitments, while building the case that Iran is subject to attack because it has violated its NPT obligations as a state pledged not to acquire nuclear weapons, is double think emblazoned on the sky of hard power geopolitics. Accountability for the weak and vulnerable, discretion for the strong and mighty. It is this woeful message of street geopolitics that is being transmitted to the peoples of the world in this crisis-building moment.

 

            There is one final point. If ever there was an argument for the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran, the diplomacy of Israel and the West has fashioned it in a strong form. After all Iran is being constantly threatened with attack by states for more powerful than itself, and although it possesses retaliatory capacity, it is vulnerable to devastating attacks from sea, air, and land. Can we imagine a better set of conditions for acquiring nuclear weapons so as to deter an attack? If deterrence legitimates nuclear weapons for the West, why not for Iran? Would Iraq have been attacked in 2003 if it had a stockpile of nuclear weapons accompanied by delivery capacities? These questions point in two directions: the unacceptable two-tier structure of governance with respect to nuclear weaponry that the world has endured since the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and the imperative urgency of rejecting nuclear hegemony and oligarchy, and moving toward a negotiated nuclear disarmament treaty. There is no morally and legally acceptable or politically viable alternative to the abolition of all nuclear weapons as a global policy priority of utmost urgency.

A Modest Proposal: Is It Time for the Community of Non-Nuclear States to Revolt?

7 Oct


             There are 189 countries that are parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that entered into force in 1970. Only India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea have remained outside the treaty regime so as to be free to acquire the weapons. The nuclear weapons states have done an incredibly successful job, especially the United States, in getting a free ride, continuously modernizing their arsenals while keeping the weapons out of most unwanted hands.

 

            But the NPT was negotiated as a world order bargain. The non-nuclear countries would forego their weapons option in exchange for receiving the full benefits of nuclear energy and a pledge by the nuclear weapons states to seek nuclear disarmament in good faith. After 40 years it seems time to question both the benefits of nuclear energy (especially so after Fukushima) and even more the good faith of the members of the nuclear weapons club. Back in 1996 the World Court unanimously concluded that the nuclear weapons states needed to fulfill their treaty obligation to seek nuclear disarmament as a matter of urgency, and yet nothing resembling disarmament negotiations has taken place. It seems time to declare that the good faith obligation of Article VI of the treaty has been violated, and that this is a material breach that allows all states to disavow any obligation.

 

            Two mind games have kept the non-nuclear majority of states in line so far: first, convincing the public that the greatest danger to the world comes from the countries that do not have the weapons rather than from those that do; secondly, confusing the public into believing that arms control measures are steps toward nuclear disarmament rather than being managerial steps periodically taken by the nuclear weapons states to cut the costs and risks associated with their weapons arsenals and programs and to fool the world into thinking they are living up to their obligation to phase out these infernal weapons of mass destruction.

 

            There are other problems too. Israel has been allowed to acquire nuclear weapons by stealth without suffering any adverse consequences, while Iraq was invaded and occupied supposedly to dismantle their nuclear weapons program that turned out to be non-existent and Iran is under threat of military attack because its nuclear energy program has a built in weapons potential. Such double standards and geopolitical discrimination severely erode the legitimacy of the NPT approach.

 

            Barack Obama earned much favorable publicity, and probably was given the Nobel Peace Prize, because in 2009 he made an inspirational speech in Prague announcing his commitment to a world without nuclear weapons. Although the speech was hedged with qualifications, including the mind-numbing reassurance to nuclearists not to worry, nothing would happen in Obama’s lifetime, it still gave rise to hopes that finally there would be a genuine attempt to rid the world of this nuclear curse. But it was not to be.

As with so many issues during the Obama presidency, the early gestures of promise were quietly abandoned in arenas of performance.

 

            Has not the time come for the too patient 184+ non-nuclear weapons states to stand together with the peoples of the world to challenge the world nuclear weapons oligopoly? One way would be to declare the treaty null and void due to non-compliance by the nuclear weapons states. Such a move would be fully in accord with international treaty law.

 

            Another way, perhaps more brash, but also maybe more likely to have a political impact, would be for as many non-nuclear states as possible to take a collective stand by way of an ultamatum: if the nuclear weapons states do not engage in credible nuclear disarmament negotiations designed to eliminate the weapons within two years, the treaty will be denounced.  

 

            

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,522 other followers