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Saudi Arabia, Royal Impunity, and the Quicksand of Special Relationships

20 Oct

(Prefatory Note: This post is a substantially revised version of an opinion piece published online by Middle East Eye on October 6, 2015; it challenges the geopolitics of impunity from both principled and pragmatic perspectives, and also casts doubts on ‘special relationships’ that the United States has established in the Middle East with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Finally, an effort is made to suggest that there is an alternative based essentially on the practical wisdom in the 21st century of upholding and strengthening the global rule of law.)


Saudi Arabia enjoys a spectacular level of impunity from international accountability. This is not only because it a powerful monarchy or has the world’s richest and largest royal family with influence spread far and wide. And it is not even just about oil, although having a quarter of the world’s pre-fracking energy reserves still engenders utmost deference from those many modern economies that will depend on Gulf oil and gas for as long as this precious black stuff lasts. The Saudi comfort zone is also sustained by its special relationship with the United States that provides geopolitical backing of great benefit.


This refusal to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for upholding law and morality raised mainstream eyebrows that have usually looked the other way when it came to the Saudi record on human rights. Recently electing Saudi Arabia to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), partly due to a secret vote swap with the UK, seemed to cross a hereto invisible line. And if that was not enough of an affront to cosmetic morality in the sphere of human rights, the Saudi UN ambassador has been recently selected to chair the influential HRC ‘ consultative panel that recommends to the President of the Council a short-list of whom shall be appointed as Special Rapporteurs, including on such issues as right to women, freedom of expression, and religious freedom.


This news is coupled with confirmation that Saudi Arabia has inflicted more beheadings than ISIS this year, over 2 a day, and has ordered Ali Mohammed al-Nimr to be executed by crucifixion for taking part in an anti-monarchy demonstration when he was 17.  In a second representative case, the popular blogger, Raif Badawi, was sentenced to a long prison term and 1000 lashes in public for criticizing the monarchy.  This behavior resembles the barbarism of ISIS more than it exhibits qualifications to occupy senior UN positions dealing with human rights.


Additionally, Riyadh like Damascus, seems guilty of severe war crimes due to its repeated and indiscriminate targeting of civilians during its dubious Yemen intervention. The worst incident of late was an air strike targeting a wedding party on September 29th, killing 131 civilians, including many women and children, but the overall pattern of the Saudi military onslaught has been oblivious to the constraints of international humanitarian law as embodied in the Geneva Conventions of 1949.  


The Saudi mismatch between stature and behavior cannot be considered, as it appears to be, a grotesque anomaly in the global normative order. Instead, it fits neatly into a coherent geopolitical pattern.  Ever since World War II Saudi Arabia has been an indispensable strategic asset for the West. Oil is the core explanation of this affinity, but it is far from the whole story. Earlier Saudi anti-Communism was important, a kind of health insurance policy for the West that the government would not lured into the Soviet orbit or adopt a non-aligned position in the manner of Nasser’s Egypt, which would have dangerously undermined energy security for Western Europe.


In recent years, converging patterns of extreme hostility toward Iran that Saudi Arabia shares with Israel has delighted Washington planners who had long been challenged by the difficulty of juggling unconditional support for Israel with an almost absolute dependence of the West on keeping Gulf oil flowing at affordable prices. This potential vulnerability was vividly revealed in the aftermath of the 1973 Middle East War when Saudi Arabia expressed the dissatisfaction of the Arab world with Western pro-Israel positioning by persuading OPEC to impose an oil embargo that caused a global panic attack. This crisis unfolded on two levels– a high road revealing Western vulnerability to Middle Eastern oil and a low road of severe consumer discontent in reaction to long gas lines and higher prices at the pump attributable to the embargo.


It was then that war hawks in the West murmured aloud about coercively ending the embargo by landing paratroopers on Saudi oil fields. Henry Kissinger, never troubled by war scenarios, speculated that such an intervention might be ‘necessary’ for the economic security of the West. The Saudi rulers heard this ‘never again’ pledge from the custodians of world order, and have since been careful not to step on Western toes.


Against such a background, it is hardly surprising that NGO concerns about the dreadful human rights landscape in Saudi Arabia falls on deaf ears. President Obama who never tires of telling the world that the national character of America requires it to live accord with its values, centering on human rights and democracy, holds his otherwise active tongue when it comes to Saudi Arabia. He is busy reassuring the new Saudi king that the US remains as committed as ever to this second ‘special relationship’ in the Middle East, the first being, of course, with Israel.


If we look beneath the word ‘special,’ which conveys the added importance attached of the relationship, it seems to imply unconditional support, including a refusal to voice criticism in public. US geopolitical backing confers impunity, shielding a beneficiary from any pushback by the international community at the UN or elsewhere. There are other perks that come with this status additional to impunity. Perhaps none more notable than the embarrassment associated with hustling Saudi notables out of the United States the day after the 9/11 attacks. Remember that 15 of the 19 plane hijackers were Saudi nationals, and the US Government still refuses to release 28 pages of detailed evidence on alleged Saudi connections with Al Qaeda gathered by the 9/11 investigative commission.


Surely if Iran had remotely comparable linkages to those notorious events it would likely have produced a casus belli; recall that the justification for attacking Iraq in 2003 was partially based on flimsy fictitious allegations of Baghdad’s 9/11 complicity. 


The Saudi special relationship (unlike that with Israel) is more mutually beneficial. Because of the enormous revenues earned by selling 10 million barrels of oil a day for decades, Saudi unwavering support for the dollar as the currency of account has been of crucial help to the American ambition to dominate the global economy. Beyond this, the Saudis after pushing the world price of oil up by as much as 400% in the 1970s quickly healed the wounds by a massive recycling of so-called petrodollars through investments in Europe and North America, and especially appreciated, have been the Saudi purchase of many billions of dollars worth of arms over the years. The United States did its part to uphold the relationship, especially by responding to the 1990 Iraqi attack on Kuwait that also menaced Saudi Arabia. By deploying 400,000 troops in Saudi Arabia and leading the successful effort to compel Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, American reliability as Saudis protective big brother was convincingly upheld. Of course, in this interest there was a genuine convergence of interests. Western policy as shaped by American foreign policy accorded an absolute priority to keeping Gulf oil in friendly hands.


Despite the major strategic benefits to both sides, the most remarkable aspect of this special relationship is its survival in the face of the Saudi role in its massive worldwide funding of Islamic anti-Western militancy or jihadism. Saudi promotion of religious education with a Wahhabist slant is widely believed to be largely responsible for the rise and spread of jihadism, and the resultant turmoil.


I would have thought that the West, especially after 9/11 would insist that Saudi Arabia stop supporting Wahhabist style extremism abroad, even if it overlooked denials of human rights at home due to the imposition of harsh controls upon freedom of expression, of association, women’s rights, cruel and unusual punishments. More damaging in its political consequences than being the shield of Saudi impunity is the willingness of the US to go along with the anti-Iranian sectarian line that the Saudi leadership relies upon to justify such controversial moves as direct interventions in Bahrain and Yemen, as well as the provision of  weapons and money to anti-Assad forces in Syria.


Saudi opportunism became evident when the kingdom threw its diplomatic support and a large bundle of cash to an anti-Sunni coup in Egypt against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government. Saudi’s true enemies are determined by the threat posed to the stability of the monarchy, and not by their sectarian identity. In this sense Iran is an enemy because it is a regional rival that threatens to impinge upon the role and influence of Saudi Arabia, and not because of its adherence to a Shia variety of Islam. Similarly the Muslim Brotherhood, despite being of Sunni persuasion, was perceived as as a threat to royal absolutism by its democratizing challenge directed at the Mubarak autocracy. Sectarian identity is distinctly secondary, especially for the Saudi monarchy that is responsible for the conduct of foreign policy. At home, the stability of royal governance is sustained by allowing a free rein to the Wahhabi religious leadership that subject the Saudi people to its severe sectarian constraints.


Saudi impunity makes us appreciate the value of normal relationships among sovereign states. These do not entail exemptions from accountability in relation to international crimes and human rights violations. These special relationships have become politically costly in this century, especially if used to protect rogue states from international scrutiny. Accountability based on the rule of law is far better for stability, security, and sustainable peace than impunity. It has become increasingly awkward for US Government to validate, in part, its global role by championing human rights while refusing to blink when it comes to the most minimum expectations of accountability for Saudi Arabia or Israel.


I would go further, and argue that such special relationships, although expressions of the primacy of geopolitics (as over against the implementation of a global rule of law), do not serve on balance to uphold national interests in the course of abandoning national values. Contrary to the precepts of political realism, in the Middle East these two special relationships unthinkingly bind the United States and its European allies to a failing foreign policy that has occasioned great suffering for many of the peoples of the region. The migration crisis that is one direct effect of these unfortunate policies, especially military intervention, is finally leading observers to connect some dots, and recognize that what is done in the Middle East has menacing reverberations for Europe. As well, it further damages the reputation of the United States as a principled leader in a global setting that is serving the global public good as well as promoting its national policy priorities.  Perhaps, that reputation is tarnished beyond recovery at this point in any event, making repetitional considerations almost irrelevant.




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The Yemen Catastrophe: Beset by Contradictions of Will and Intellect

28 Sep

[Prefatory Note: This post modifies an article published in Middle East Eye on September 21, 2015, with title, “Yemen pays the price for Saudis’ sectarian paranoia.” Whether the Saudis are being paranoid about political developments in their neighbors (Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen) or prudent in view of regional threats to the stability of the Kingdom is difficult to ascertain. However this issue is resolved, portraying what has gone wrong as a consequence of sectarianism or an expansionist Iran, evades the real challenges being posed in Yemen, in Syria, and elsewhere in the region. Only in Iraq, where American occupation policy injected

a self-defeating sectarianism as the centerpiece of its post-Saddam Hussein state-building project, does this optic misused when applied to Middle East conflict seem to explain the course of developments, including the alignment of Iraq’s current leaders with Iran rather than with their supposed liberators from the West!]




Yemen Catastrophe: Beset by Contradictions of Will and Intellect


Any attempt to provide a coherent account of the political strife afflicting Yemen is bound to fail. The country is crucible of contradictions that defy normal categories of rational analysis. If we look beyond the political fog that envelops the conflict the tragic circumstances of acute suffering imposed on the civilian population do emerge with stark clarity. Long before the outbreak of civil warfare, Yemen was known to be the poorest country in the region, faced with looming food and water scarcities. The UN estimates 80% of the population is in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, 40% live on less than $2 per day. Further there are high risks of mass famine and epidemic outbreaks of disease will occur, while continuing chaos is a near certainty, with the prospect of yet another wave of desperate migrants swept ashore in Europe.


Against this background, the UN Security Council seems shockingly supportive of a major Saudi military intervention via sustained air attacks that started in March 2015, severely aggravating the overall situation by unanimously adopting a one-sided anti-Houthi Resolution 2216. This Saudi use of force is contrary to international law, violates the core principle of the UN Charter, and magnifies the violent disruption of Yemeni society. The success of the Houthi insurgency from the north that swept the Yemeni leadership from power, taking over the capital city of Sanaa, was perversely treated by the Security Council as a military coup somehow justifying the intervention by a Saudi led coalition of Gulf countries pledged to restore the ‘legitimate’ government to power. To grasp the geopolitics at play it is clarifying to recall that the 2013 blatant military coup in Egypt, with much bloodier reprisals against the displaced elected rulers, aroused not a murmur of protest in the halls of the UN. Once more the primacy of geopolitics is showcased in the Middle East. It’s not what you do, but who does it, that matters when it comes to a UN response.


What makes it even more difficult to make sense of developments in Yemen is the geopolitical tendency, as abetted by the media, to reduce incredibly complex national histories and the interplay of multiple contending forces to a simplistic story of Sunni versus Shia rivalry for the control of the country. Such a prism of interpretation, above all, allows Saudi Arabia to portray once again the strife in Yemen as another theater of the wider region proxy war pitting Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies against Iran, which is a guaranteed way of securing U.S. and Israeli backing. The same rationale has served the Kingdom well (and the world badly) in explaining why it supports anti-Assad forces in Syria during the last several years. It also was the pretext for intervening in Bahrain in 2011 to crush a popular pro-democracy uprising. If considered more objectively we begin to understand that this sectarian optic obscures more than it reveals, and not accidentally.


For instance, when it came to Egypt, however, the sectarian template was completely discarded, and the Saudis immediately used their financial muscle to help the anti-Muslim Brotherhood coup in 2012 led by General Sisi to consolidate its control over the country. Even when Israel attacked Gaza a year ago, seeking to destroy Hamas, a Sunni Islamic version of the Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia made no secret of the startling fact that it gave Tel Aviv a green light. What emerges, then, is not a regional politics based on sectarian priorities, but rather a pathological preoccupation with regime stability in the Saudi monarchy, with anxieties arising whenever political tendencies emerge in the region that elude its control, and are perceived as threatening. Part of the truer explanation of Saudi pattern of behavior also has to do with the Faustian Bargain struck with the powerful Wahabi establishment, which has allowed the Saud royal clan to flourish at home while spending billions to spread the most repressive version of Islam far and wide to madrassas throughout Asia. The fact that the application of Wahabism at home, including more than 100 beheadings already this year and confinement of women to an extent that makes the Islamic Republic of Iran appear liberal by comparison, is a further sign that international clamor of human rights is selective to put it mildly.


The people of Yemen are paying a huge price for this brand of Saudi violent security politics. Whether it is paranoia at work or a healthy respect for the mass unpopularity of its policies, or some mixture, is difficult to assess. Yet what seems clear is that much of the world is lulled to sleep, not taking the trouble to peer below this sectarian cover story. Only scant account taken of the fact that the real threats to regional order in Yemen do not come from a reasonable Houthi insistence on power-sharing political arrangements, but mainly arise from the presence in Yemen of Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS that have been long targeted by American drones as part of the war of the terror ever since 2007. So while the West supports the Saudi fight against the Shia Houthis at the same time it does its best to weaken their most formidable domestic opposition, and in the process further alienates the Yemeni civilian population by its military tactics, which recruits more extremists committed to fighting against this second form of external intervention that finds no basis in international law and enjoys the tacit support of the UN Security Council.


If this was not enough to make the Yemeni crystal ball opaque, there is the internal alignment of forces. On the one side, the 2012 successor regime to the corrupt dictatorial rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh that is headed by its equally corrupt former vice president, Abd Rabbaah Mansour Hadi, now apparently ‘governing’ from exile, although rumored to be seeking a return to Aden. On the anti-regime side, in addition to the Houthis, are the main military and police forces that still respond to the authority of the ousted leader, Saleh, who has returned to the Yemen struggle to oppose the Saudi intervention and have helped turn the tide of battle on the ground against the Hadi-led government. Despite this adverse battlefield reality, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir, was quoted as saying “We will do whatever it takes to protect the legitimate government of Yemen from falling.” Tragically, what this seems to mean, is reducing the country to a shambles that brings starvation and disease to the population, and possibly escalating at some future point of frustration by the launch of a ground offensive. There are confirmed reports of a massing of Saudi troops close to the Yemen border.


At this point, it is difficult to know what would bring some kind of peace and stability to Yemen. What we do know is that both the sectarian optic, Saudi intervention, and American drone warfare are dead end options. The beginning of a constructive approach is to take root causes of the current conflict into account. Several need to be considered. There is a long experience of division in the country between the north and the south, and this means that any unity government for the whole of Yemen can only be sustained by an iron-fisted dictator like Saleh or through a genuine power-sharing federalist kind of arrangement based on decentralized autonomy and a weak central governmental structure. Beyond this, the country bears the scars of Ottoman rule intermixed with a British presence in Aden and the surrounding area, vital to earlier colonial priorities of controlling the Suez and the trade routes to the East.


Additionally, and often forgotten and ignored, Yemen remains a composite of tribes that still command the major loyalty of people and reign supreme in many locales. The modern European insistence on sovereign states in the Middle East never succeeded in overcoming the primacy of Yemeni tribal identities. Any possibility of political stability requires subsidizing and respecting Yemen’s tribes as Saudi Arabia did during Saleh’s dictatorship (1990-2012) or creating a multi-colored quilt of autonomous tribal polities. When the background of the north/south split and persisting tribalism are taken into account recourse to the Shia/Sunni divide or the Riyadh/Tehran rivalry as an explanation of Yemen’s strife-ridden country is more than a simplistic evasion of a far more complicated reality. It is a cruel and futile fantasy.


What should be done, given this overall situation? One potential key to achieving some kind of peace in Yemen is held by policymakers in Washington. So long as the U.S. Government remains beholden to the rulers in Saudi monarchy, to the extremists running Israel, and insistent on striking at AQAP targets with drone missiles, this key is unusable. This combination of factors is what makes the wider political turmoil in the Middle East stuck on a lethal fast moving treadmill. How to get off the treadmill, that is the question for which there answers, but as yet no relevant political will.


There are two obvious moves, neither ideal, but with the modest goal of a first step in creating a new political order: first, negotiate a ceasefire that includes an end to the Saudi intervention; secondly, establish a more credible revival of the National Dialogue Conference that two years ago made a failed attempt at Gulf initiative in Sanaa to find a power-sharing arrangement. It did not help matters then that two successive Houthi representatives at the diplomatic discussions were assassinated on their way to participate. What is needed is establishing a political transition sensitive both to the north/south split and the strength of Yemeni tribes coupled with massive economic assistance from outside, as well as the establishment of a UN peacekeeping presence tasked with implementation and the termination of all forms of external armed intervention. Nothing less has any chance of working.


Such a rational path is currently blocked, especially by the intense militancy of the aggressive Saudi leadership of King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, and his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Secretary of Defense, the apparent champion of military intervention. The United States, with its special relationship to Israel, its strong ties to Saudi Arabia, and faith in drone led counterterrorism seems to be swallowing the central contradiction between opposing both its real adversaries, AQAP and ISIS, and its implicit ally, the Houthis. Instead of treating the enemy of their enemy as a friend, Washington has reversed the proverb. This Gordian Knot is strangling the people of Yemen. Cutting it will require a drastic break with current policy. The way forward is evident, but how to get there is not, in the meantime the bodies pile up in what has long been considered the poorest country in the region severely stressed by the prospect of severe water scarcities.


Israel’s Likud Troika: Burying the Oslo ‘Peace Process’

12 Sep



[Prefatory Note: This is a slightly modified text of an article published in Middle East Eye on September 1, 2015, and republished on my blog with permission.]



Israel’s relentless accumulation of territorial facts on the ground some years ago doomed the peace process associated with the Oslo Framework of Principles adopted in 1993. It became increasingly difficult to envisage an Israeli willingness to dismantle settlements and road network or remove the separation barrier, and without such steps there could never be achieved an independent and viable Palestinian state. It should be kept in mind, without even raising the issue of the right of return of at least five million Palestinian refugees living outside of Palestine, that the whole premise of Palestinian statehood was based on the green line ceasefire borders that emerged from the 1967 borders. Even if Israel were persuaded to withdraw from the entirety of occupied Palestine, it would amount to only 22% of historic Palestine, less than half of what the UN recommended to a much smaller population by way of partition in 1947 (GA Res. 181). Yet even in those days of illusion when Israel was purporting to be receptive to the two-state approach it insisted on carving out a permanent security zone in the agriculturally rich Jordan Valley and maintaining a significant measure of border control.


For years Israel has played along with the diplomatic consensus constructed on basis of a two-state solution of the conflict as the only reasonable politically compromise. Israel had lots to gain from upholding this consensus, but quite a bit to lose by actually implementing it in a reasonable manner. Maintaining the diplomatic track satisfies its own citizenry and world public opinion that it is doing everything possible to reach a peaceful end of the conflict. In the course of such events, Israel gained the time it needed to expand the settlement phenomenon until it became so extensive as to negate any reasonable prospect for substantial reversal. And yet by relying on its sophisticated control of the media it could pin most of the blame on the Palestinian Authority for one round after another of failed bilateral negotiations. This in turn made it possible to mount propaganda campaigns around even the false claim that Israel lacked a Palestinian partner for peace negotiations.


While this diversionary process has continued for more than two decades, Israeli consolidated its influence in the U.S. Congress, which strengthened an already unprecedented ‘special relationship’ between the two countries. These dynamics made a mockery of Washington’s claim to be a neutral intermediary. And above all, the consensus pacified the international community, which repeatedly joining the public chorus calling for resumed negotiations. This became a cynical process with diplomats whispering in the corridors of UN buildings that the diplomatic effort to end the conflict was a sham while their governments kept restating their faith in the Oslo approach.


As argued here, the present futility of Oslo diplomacy has been indirectly acknowledged by Israel, and should be explicitly abandoned by the world community. Whether Israel’s was ever prepared to accept a Palestinian state remains in doubt. The fact that each prime minister since Oslo, and this includes Yitzhak Rabin, endorsed settlement expansion raises suspicions about Israel’s true intentions, but there were also indications that Tel Aviv earlier had looked with favor upon the diplomatic option provided that it could, with American backroom help, persuade the Palestinians to swallow a one-sided bargain that incorporated the settlement blocs and satisfied Israel’s security goals.


In the last couple of years the veil has been lifted, and it is overdue to declare Oslo diplomacy a failure that has been costly for the Palestinian people and their aspirations. We can reinforce this assessment by pointing to three connected developments at the pinnacle of Israeli state power, dominated in recent years by the right wing Likud Party. The first is the election by the Knesset in 2014 of Reuven Rivlin as the tenth Israeli president.

Rivlin is a complex political figure in Likud politics, a party rival of Netanyahu, a longtime advocate of a one-state solution that calls for the annexation of the West Bank, and an opponent of international diplomacy. The complexity arises because Rivlin’s vision is one of humane, democratic participation of the Palestinian population, conferring citizenship based on fully equality, and even envisioning an ethnic confederation of the two peoples to be achieved within Israel’s expanded sovereign borders.


The second development was the campaign promise made by Netanyahu on the eve of the March elections that a Palestinian state would never be established so long as he was prime minister. This startling break with the American posture was also a reversion to Netanyahu’s initial opposition to the Oslo Framework, and bitter denunciations of Rabin for embracing a process expected to result in Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu’s 2015 campaign pledge seemed closer to his true position all along if judged by his behavior although contradicting what his talk at Bar Ilan University back in 2009 when he declared support for Palestinian statehood as the only way for Israel to achieve peace with security. To slightly mend relations with Washington after his recent electoral victory, Netanyahu always crafty, again modified his position, by saying that in the heat of the elections he only meant that no Palestinian state could be established so long as jihadi turmoil in the region persisted. Given the extent of Israeli territorial encroachments on occupied Palestine I would trust Netanyahu’s electoral promise much more than his later clarification, a feeble attempt to restore confidence in the special relationship with the United States.


The third development, which should remove the last shred of ambiguity with respect to a diplomatic approach, is the designation of Danny Danon as Israel’s next ambassador at the UN. Danon is a notorious settlement hawk, long an outspoken advocate of West Bank annexation, arrogantly disdaining the arts of diplomacy needed to deflect the hostile UN atmosphere. If Israel felt that it had anything to gain by maintaining the Oslo illusion, then certainly Danon would not have been the UN pick. There are plenty of Israel diplomats skilled in massaging world public opinion that could have been sent to New York, but this was not the path chosen.


How shall we best understand this Israeli turn toward forthrightness? In the first instance, it reflects the primacy of domestic politics, and a corresponding attitude by Israel’s leaders that it has little need to appease world opinion or accommodate Washington’s insistence that diplomacy, while not now working, remains the only road leading to a peaceful solution.

Furthermore, the Likud troika seems to be converging on a unilateralist approach to the conflict with the Palestinians, while doing its best to distract the international attention by exaggerating the threat posed by Iran. This unilateralist approach can move in two directions: The Netanyahu direction, which is a shade more internationalist, and involves continuing the process of de facto annexation of occupied Palestine, reinforced by an apartheid structure of control over the Palestinian people; the Rivlin/Danon direction overtly incorporating the West Bank into Israel, and then either following the democratic and human rights path of treating the two peoples equally or hardening still further the oppressive regime of discriminatory control established during over 48 years of occupation.


While this Israeli scenario of conflict resolution unfolds most governments, not sensing an alternative, continue to proclaim their allegiance to a two-state solution despite its manifest disappointments and poor prospects. At present, there are a series of international gestures toward lifting the peace process from its deathbed. Sisi of Egypt hosts Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority proclaiming a readiness to mediate bilateral negotiations, and even Netanyahu in the immediate aftermath of Israel’s inability to scuttle the Iran Nuclear Agreement has the temerity to indicate an interest in renewed peace talks. In effect, ‘Oslo is dead, long live Oslo.’ Put differently, the political death of Oslo is being disguised by a diplomatic afterlife. It will be shameful if the Ramallah leadership again enters this cynically set diplomatic trap. As the above analysis shows there is no evidence whatsoever that Israel is at all inclined to allow an independent sovereign Palestinian state to come into existence. Israel is even fought hard against allowing Palestine to fly national flag in front of the UN building. Of course, as in the past, Israel will for the sake of public relations, including rehabilitating its ‘special relationship’ with the United States, evidently again play this cruel game of charades. But why are the Palestinians willing to be partners to such a sham?


This see-no-evil posture of governments, and even the UN, ignores the emergence of two more promising alternatives: the gathering momentum of civil society activism exhibited via the BDS campaign and increasingly acknowledged by Israel as its most security threat, leading recently to the establishment of an official ‘Delegitimation Department’ assigned to do battle with the Palestinian solidarity movement.


And on a diplomatic level, pursued with some energy and imagination by the Palestinian Authority, is the use of international law and Palestinian statehood to engage the wider international community of states in support of its struggle. Several examples illustrate the approach: the 2012 General Assembly endorsement of Palestinian statehood; the adherence to prominent international law treaties and conventions; admission as member to UNESCO; adherence to the Rome Treaty framing the activities of the International Criminal Court; and just days ago, the GA approval of the wish of Palestine, although having the status of a non-member observer state, to fly its national flag alongside the flags of UN members at UN buildings. With the abandonment of armed struggle and the breakdown of bilateral diplomacy, Palestinian recourse to legitimacy tactics reinforces the civil society global solidarity network that has been exerting increasing pressure on Israel.




The Nuclear Challenge (10): Seventy Years After Hiroshima & Nagasaki: Against Binaries

10 Sep

[Prefatory Note: This is the tenth, and mercifully the last, in this series of posts prompted by the 70th observance of the atomic attacks in 1945. The intention has been to explore several of the more important dimensions of what is called here ‘nuclearism,’ the securitization of nuclear weaponry in the face of international law, international morality, and simple common sense, and what can and should be done to achieve desecuritization of such weaponry of mass destruction, reviewing the stubborn adherence to nuclearism by the nuclear nine, the marginalization of the UN with respect to disarmament and denuclearization, and the rise and fall of antinuclear activism in civil society. Hopefully, the time will come when a less gloomy depiction of the nuclear challenge can be made by some future blog practitioner. This text is a slightly revised version of what was initially posted, written in grateful response to comments received.]


There have been a variety of philosophical assaults on either/or thinking, perhaps most notably flowing from the deconstructionist pen of Jacques Derrida. In more policy related contexts, the debate about dichotomizing gender has featured two sets of arguments: first the contention that it is important to distinguish lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people, hence the LGBT designation of sexual ‘otherness,’ which enriches the either/or-ness of the reigning male/female gender binary. Identifications of sexuality also cuts against the grain of the dominant heterosexual or straight template, and is further contested by ongoing debates surrounding the societal, legal, and conceptual legitimacy of ‘same sex marriages.’


The New York Times columnist, Charles Blow, pushes the sexual identity envelope further by developing the case for ‘fluidity’ of preferences, that is, neither purely this or that. He personalizes the issue, indicating that he generally is attracted to women, but on occasion might also be attracted to men, which because the feelings of attraction are greater for women than men, it is not accurate to define himself as ‘bisexual.’ Such a blurring of boundaries corresponds with the actuality of his feelings that even cut across supposedly liberating socially constructed categories as LGBT is meant to be. [Sept 7, 2015] The point being that the biopolitical reality of life often does not divide neatly into binary categories, and when we address the issue as one of upholding societal norms by enacting laws disciplining sexual limits, adverse social, political, and psychological self-alienation and arbitrary distinctions follow. This encroaches upon our freedoms in unfortunate, often unconscious, ways, leading many individuals to stay in the closet to hide their true feelings or be open and face subtle punitive consequences. Or, at best, individuals conclude that their failure to fit their feelings into a single box is somehow ‘abnormal.’ Relaxing traditional roles of state, church, and society in policing politically correct identities is one of the few areas in which freedom in American can be said to have expanded in the last couple of decades, and this, largely due to the transcendence of gender and sexual binaries thanks to robust civil society activism that cut against the grain of majority sentiment.



Perhaps, the most blatant of all binaries bearing on nuclear weapons is between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ nuclear weapons states, which immediately reminds us of Mahmood Mamdani’s devastating critique of the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims. [See Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (2005)] The United States and its allies regard themselves as ‘good’ nuclear weapons states that the world has no reason to worry about while Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan are ‘evil,’ or at best ‘irresponsible’ or ‘insecure’ states that should if at all possible be disallowed to acquire nuclear weapons. It is this primary binary that provides the moral/political disguised infrastructure of NPT treaty regime, which when established was confined to the P5 of the UN Security Council, which while not conceived of as ‘good’ by the West were at least not part of ‘the axis of evil’ depicted by George W. Bush during his presidency.


In this series on the nuclear challenge as of 2015, I have myself succumbed to the ‘binary temptation’ in at least two respects—distinguishing arms control from disarmament, and separating nuclear disarmament from conventional disarmament. Relying on binaries can contribute to a certain clarity of analysis, leading I believe to useful political discourse, but it is also misleading unless qualified and transcended. Dichotomizing choice and consequences in these ways can be especially useful in pointing out weaknesses and pitfalls in ‘politically correct’ methods of solving societal problems. In this spirit, I continue to believe it is illuminating to insist on the critical difference between complete nuclear disarmament as transformative of the security scene as now embedded in world order and arms control as a series of more or less helpful reformist moves that stabilize and manage the role of nuclear weaponry in contemporary security structures. These arms control moves are made without posing any challenge to the fundamental distribution of power and authority in the world, and tend to make such a challenge appear less urgent, and even of questionable benefit.

From this perspective, then, a critique of the NPT regime as the preeminent stabilizing structure in relation to nuclearism seems justified. It provides the basis for setting forth an argument that the NPT approach is antagonistic, rather than complementary to denuclearization and disarmament. This is contrary to the way the NPT regime is generally explained and affirmed, which is as step toward achieving nuclear disarmament, and an indispensable place holding measure to reduce the risks of nuclear war. It is true that inhibiting the spread of nuclear weaponry seems to be in the spirit of what might be described as horizontal denuclearization, although even this limited assertion is not without controversy. The recently deceased Kenneth Waltz with impeccable logical consistency seemed to believe so deeply in rational decision making as embedded in the doctrine of deterrence that he favored the spread of nuclear weapons to additional countries because it would tend to make governments more cautious, and hence nuclear war less likely. Others, including myself, are more ambivalent about such an out of the box position, worrying about any further spread of the bomb, but thinking that only when there is a sense of a loss of control in the capitals of the nuclear nine will there arise a sufficient interest in denuclearization as a genuine political project (as distinct from more or less sincere rhetorical posturing). Obama’s Prague speech in 2009 still seems sincere as of the time of its delivery, but we need to notice that it lived and died as rhetoric because it lacked legs, that is, the rhetoric was never converted into a political project. In contrast, the NPT is definitely a political project and enjoys strong geopolitical support.


The policy emphasis on horizontal denuclearization has the sometimes intended and sometimes unintended effect of shifting public attention away from the greater problematique of promoting vertical declearization, that is, inducing the nuclear weapons states to enter a diplomatic process that would finish with zero nuclear weapons in their military arsenals. Again such a distinction, while useful for some purposes, employs the artificial binary of horizontal and vertical, and misses the nuance actuality of hybridity and interactivity, or what Blow describes as ‘fluidity’ or others have been delimiting by dwelling on the fifty shades of gray positioned between the black and white of conventional thinking. Decuclearization for each of the nuclear nine raises different issues depending on the outlook of their leadership, the political context, and the ease of making alternative non-nuclear security arrangements, as well as their interaction with one another and with neighboring states.


Perhaps, the most salient false dichotomy of all is between ‘nuclear weapons states’ and ‘non-nuclear weapons states.’ When countries have the enrichment facilities and materials, as well as the technical knowhow, they possess a breakout capacity that could materialize in a matter of months, or maybe already exists as a result of a secret program (as was the case with Israel). Yet without acquiring and exploding a bomb such states retain their status as non-nuclear. Israel is treated as belonging to the nuclear nine because its possession of the weaponry has been documented convincingly, although it has never officially admitted its possession of the weaponry, and keeps vindictively punishing Mordechai Vanunu because he exposed the truth about Israel’s nuclear program. North Korea may not have assembled a bomb when it was charged with violating NPT constraints. Germany and Japan, and perhaps a few other countries, are latent or threshold nuclear states, although their overt posture is one of being ‘non-nuclear.’ The fluidity of reality makes the binary classification, at best, a first approximation. At worst, it creates a deceptive distance between states that have nuclear weapons and those that do not presently possess the weaponry, but could do so in a short time. Or between those that pretend not to have the weapon but actually have it and those that pretend to have it but do not have it. The binary classification ignores the many differences with respect to nuclear weapons and doctrines surrounding use of the nuclear nine, but also the many nuances of technical and political proximity to nuclearism of non-nuclear states. Some states have allowed deployments of nuclear weapons on their territory, others have prohibited ships carrying nuclear weapons from entering their ports for even a short visit.



The situation becomes even more complicated if inquiry is extended to secondary political effects. It has been argued that vertical denuclearization undertaken by the United States would likely lead to horizontal nuclearization on the part of Japan and South Korea. Contrariwise, it is reasoned in strategic circles that the nuclearization of countries in Asia and the Middle East could induce vertical denuclearization on a systemic basis to avoid the instabilities and raised risks of a growing number of hands on the nuclear trigger, and to clear the way for regional securitization based on American conventional military dominance. Worries about continued proliferation combined with the realization that American military power would become more usable and effective in a world without nuclear weapons even led such realist mainstays as George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn to support nuclear disarmament in the normally militarist pages of the Wall Street Journal. [“A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” Wall Street Journal, Jan 4, 2007.]


A similar line of reasoning applies to the relationship between nuclear disarmament and conventional disarmament. Focusing on nuclear disarmament as a distinct undertaking avoids difficult issues of whether disarmament rests on a premise of pacifism and thus would be imprudent in view of centuries of political consciousness supporting the right and practical necessity of political communities acting in self-defense to uphold their security against external threats. This logic of a collective right to bear arms underlies the modern system of state-centric world order that conceives of security within bounded territorial entities as integrally linked to the war system.


At the same time, as discussed in relation to Gorbachev’s vision of nuclear disarmament discussed in The Nuclear Challenge (3), it is unrealistic to think of deep disarmament without introducing demilitarization into the process. Otherwise as Gorbachev points out, governments will be reluctant to take the last steps in a denuclearizing process if they understand that at the zero point for nuclear weapons, the world will be confronted by American military dominance, already prefigured by the U.S. government spending almost as much to maintain and develop its military machine as the entire rest of the world. For meaningful commentary it is necessary to view different types of disarmament as complements rather than as alternatives, and not to ignore different levels of interactivity. Although both Gorbachev and the Shultz group advocate nuclear disarmament, their geopolitical agendas are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Gorbachev seeks a demilitarized world of equally secure sovereign states whereas the Shultz group favors stabilizing American military hegemony.


One of the most frequently identified binary is that between nuclear weapons and nuclear energy or power. This binary is built into the NPT regime, giving non-nuclear states reassurances in Article IV that by foregoing the bomb they will not be denied the supposed benefits of nuclear energy, and that they can look forward to a denuclearized world as the nuclear weapons states accepted a legal duty to negotiate disarmament in Article VI. And then in Article X parties to the NPT are given a right to withdraw after giving three months notice in response to security imperatives, a right that can be overridden by the geopolitical insistence on non-acquisition of the weaponry as with Iran. The reality of the nuclear world subverts such a binary in a number of ways. If a nuclear energy program is established it creates conditions that makes it easier to cross the weapons threshold by having the capability to produce enriched uranium or plutonium and the technical knowhow to produce a nuclear warhead. Also, the kind of nuclear accidents that occurred at Chernobyl and Fukushima suggest that nuclear facilities are nuclear time bombs awaiting an igniting natural disaster or human error. Such nuclear power plants are also could be a priority target for unscrupulous political extremists. These nuclear facilities pose unknown risks of devastation that could terrorize millions of people, and spread intense fear across the globe following the release of large amounts of intense radiation. Vagaries of air currents might determine whether communities become afflicted or not.


And then there are issues of geopolitical fallout stemming from managing the NPT regime. Instead of the NPT contributing to stability, its maintenance can provide the rationale for recourse to threats and uses of aggressive force. The 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq was mainly justified as a NPT enforcement operation as was the imposition of damaging international sanctions on Iran coupled with frequent reiterations of the military option by American and Israeli leaders. In effect, the alleged need to prevent certain instances of unwanted proliferation is providing political actors, especially the United States, with geopolitical justifications for costly unlawful wars that displace millions and disrupt existing political arrangements. Characterizing nuclear energy as ‘peaceful’ does not seem compatible with the spirit or substance of a fully denuclearized world.


There is an even deeper divide that needs to be bridged conceptually and practically. Can drastic forms of demilitarization reliably occur without also addressing poverty and gross disparities of individual and collective existence? And can such socio-economic issues be resolved without a combination of life style adjustments and the dismantling of neoliberal capitalism as the ideological linchpin of economic globalization? And are any of these radical changes worth contemplating without the inclusion on the policy agenda of global warming and threats to biodiversity? And on and on.


What I favor, in effect, is retaining binaries to clear up basic choices that can be better understood without the complexities and subtleties of fluidity, but also moving toward a second level of interpretation that is immersed in the existential realities of the lifeworld. On this level, evaluation would be contextual and configurative, and not be pre-judged or appraised by reference to a reductive binary. From such angles, the NPT would be seen as both helpful and harmful, making its assessment change with time and context. The NPT may have, on balance, been a constructive step in 1968 when it was possible to believe that inhibiting proliferation would give nuclear disarmament time and space to establish a more favorable climate for negotiations. By way of comparison, in 2015 the world possesses overwhelming evidence suggesting the disinclination of the nuclear weapons states to consider disarmament as a serious policy option. Such an understanding may shift the balance sufficiently to make it now more constructive to repudiate, or at least challenge the NPT regime. Such an altered approach seems quite reasonable in light of the militarist and unlawful tactics of implementation employed to victimize the peoples of Iraq and Iran.


The question of how to think about nuclear issues is itself daunting, yet crucial. One way to go about it is the recognition of distinct discourses with some sensitivity to overlaps between binary and contextual or configurative forms of analysis as discussed above. Among the substantive discourses that seem particularly useful for the promotion of denuclearization and disarmament the following can be commended: international relations; geopolitics; international law; international morality; denuclearization; demilitarization; securitization. Obviously, the path to nuclear zero is long with many twists and turns, and where it will lead remains unknown. What is known is that the struggle for nuclear disarmament, denuclearization, and demilitarization bears heavily on the destinies of the human species, and we each have a responsibility to become a participant rather than a spectator.

The Nuclear Challenge (5): 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Weird ‘Good Fortune’ of Tsutomu Yamaguchi

26 Aug


Over the years I have often thought about the political and moral consciousness associated with the atomic targeting of Japanese cities, as well as the absence of any expression of official remorse for the suffering caused and the precedent set. I was struck by the decision to bomb Hiroshima instead of Kyoto out of respect for Kyoto’s cultural heritage, and by giving the flight crew orders not to drop the second bomb on Nagasaki if weather conditions obscured the city center. It was the then Secretary of War, Henry L Stimson, who is credited with making the successful plea to the president to spare Kyoto. Stimson, an American patrician public servant, had visited Kyoto twice in the 1920s, and was impressed by the city as a tourist, and also was reported to have been concerned that America’s postwar reputation would suffer if it were to destroy such a place of cultural heritage. With Nagasaki, the crew despite its orders and the presence of cloud cover decided to launch the atomic attack, reportedly worrying that retaining the bomb would be too dangerous as the weapon because of its weight might detonate in the course of landing at its American airbase and no prior authorization had been given to drop the bomb into the sea.


In retrospect, we come to realize that the urban specifics of this most apocalyptic of decisions by the leadership of the American government and its military personnel could have turned out differently so far as the identity of the Japanese victims is concerned. This means that the tragic fate experienced by the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was determined in its specificity by the arbitrariness, perhaps inevitably so, surrounding the logistics and politics of a target selection in a distant place of unknowing.


Of course, the criminality associated with the use of such a weapon of mass terror exists quite independently of whether this or that Japanese city had been subject to an atomic attack. It is this criminality that makes the absence of remorse a continuing blemish on the American way of conducting itself in World War II. In one sense, the American justification at the time based on considerations of ‘military necessity’ and the validity of all tactics associated with winning an ongoing war was consistent with the still prevailing militarized ethics of warfare. What might have set these atomic bombs apart

was their scale of destructivity and its accompanying radiation inflicting cruel

injury and sickness long after the guns of war fell silent, as well as setting a precedent favoring use under wartime pressures.


Viewed less as an operational matter of how and where, and more as a political question of why, we become sensitized to the apparent relevance of sinister geopolitical maneuvers that underlay the decision to use the bomb against Japanese cities rather than to rely on diplomacy to end the war or at least to make this radical innovation in destructiveness by way of an exhibition in an uninhabited part of the ocean. The U.S. Government at the time partly wanted to end the war with Japan as rapidly as possible so that it would not be necessary to include the Soviet Union in the negotiation of a Pacific peace in a manner similar to the Yalta and Potsdam diplomatic process among the victors in the war that produced a divided and quasi-occupied Europe in the aftermath of the German collapse. It also seemed to be the case that the American leaders, already looking ahead toward an impending rivalry with Moscow, were intent on exhibiting the full destructive capability of their super-weapon. It seemed irrelevant to mainstream political consciousness given the war atmosphere of limitless self-justification that such decisions behind closed doors translated into ten of thousands of crushed and radiated victims killed or left to die amid the ruins of these two Japanese cities, devastated beyond recognition by such geopolitical maneuvers that have still never been exposed to the sunlight of full disclosure. Instead, the spin masters of the day wove a diversionary tale of lives saved through the avoidance of a supposedly necessary invasion of Japan that was calculated to cause the death of at least a million Americans and Japanese. With unbounded cynicism, the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while being aware that Japanese diplomats were sending peacemaking signals is another facet of this most shocking of horror stories associated with World War II. Such stories have yet to be fairly told or rescued from a continuing struggle between competing narratives of motives and context.


Yet Japan, although mercilessly victimized during the war, was far from innocent. Its militarism led to aggressive warfare and conquest throughout Asia, and inscribed memories of occupation cruelty that linger vividly even now in countries such as China, Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia. And of course, it was Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that created the basis for America’s formal entry into the war against both Japan and Germany. At least, in the aftermath of the war Japan has acknowledged, although ambiguously at times, its own responsibilities for aggression that created the chain of events that led to the dropping of the atomic bombs, whatever its principal explanation, whether geopolitical, vindictive, or military. In the historic Shimoda case brought by atomic survivors in a Japanese court, seeking symbolic repudiation of the atomic attacks and only nominal damage for personal injury and suffering to underscore their anti-nuclear animus. The court invited expert testimony from distinguished international law experts in Japan, who concluded that the use of atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki indeed violated legal prohibitions against indiscriminate, poisonous, and inhumane weaponry, and thus the attacks violated existing customary international law even absent any treaty explicitly prohibiting atomic weapons. What the Shimoda court did so impressively, aside from providing the world with its first and last judicial assessment of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was to offer their conclusions without moralistic posturing. This outlook of contrition was confirmed by issuing this decision condemning the use of atomic weapons on December 7th, the 22nd anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.


The experience of persons exposed to an atomic attack is easier to interpret than the public rationale due to the concreteness of individual experience, and the physicality of the harm. Nevertheless, there is a zone of ambiguity due to the uncertainty of the connections between exposure to the radiation generated by the bomb and the rise in underlying cancer rates. We can never explain with certitude many particular cases, especially if the symptoms are deferred to a time remote from the event. This may account for the term hibakusha used to set apart the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the rest of the Japanese population. To qualify as a hibakusha (in literal Japanese translation, ‘explosion affected people’) a person had to prove that she or he was physically present in one of the two cities at the time of the blasts so as to be eligible for government compensation and assistance. It was definitely not socially desirable to be perceived as a hibakusha, and many survivors did their best to hide this identity to avoid severe discrimination against themselves and even their children, which took several forms, especially employment and marriage. This discrimination was rationalized by the widespread acceptance of the fallacious belief that those exposed to radiation were contagious or genetically affected so that future generations would be similarly afflicted. As of 2015, there are 185,519 hibakusha known to be alive, 1% of whom suffer from radiation sickness. Additionally, separate memorials to deceased hibakusha list over 297,000 in Hiroshima and just under 169,00 in Nagasaki. Among the cruel ironies associated with having been in one of these cities on those fateful days was the mystifying combination of survivor guilt and social ostracism that further burdened the strange destiny of what survival must meant to each hibakusha.


There were also some uncanny ironies associated with such a survival. Perhaps the most extreme irony was the strange fact that an estimated 165 persons experienced both attacks and qualified as what came to be called double hibakusha (a documentary film Twice Bombed: The Double Atomic Bombed of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (2006) depicts this grotesque phenomenon). And of these, the strangest case of all, at least that is somewhat publicized, is that of Tsutomu Yamaguchi.


Mr. Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima on August 6th as part of a business trip on behalf of his employer, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, when the atom bomb exploded. He was at an office meeting 1.8 miles from ground zero, and suffered serious burn injuries on his left side, but not so serious that he could not return to his home in Nagasaki the next morning. What is somewhat startling is that Yamaguchi went to work in Nagasaki on the following day despite his condition, and on August 9th told his officemates about the amazing fact that a single bomb had destroyed the entire city of Hiroshima. His boss reacted by telling him he was crazy to believe such a ridiculous thing, and at that moment of vengeful irony the Nagasaki bomb was detonated, repeating the awful saga of Hiroshima, and validating Yamaguchi’s story greeted with such skepticism moments earlier.


Yamaguchi, a draftsman who designed tanker ships, survived both attacks despite sustaining injuries in each, and evidently “thought Japan should never start a war.” But he also is reported to have considered at some point killing his family with sleeping pills if Japan lost the war. Yamaguchi died of stomach cancer in 2010 at the age of 93, and his long life exemplifies the ironic nature of what strikes us decades later as a remarkable survival story posing an enduring question decades later to those of us detached from the immediacy of such calamities: was Yamaguchi supremely unlucky to have been in the only two cities ever attacked with atomic weapons or was he extraordinarily lucky to have survived both attacks and lived to the age of 93? Rarely have good and bad fortuitous experience been so intermixed, and perhaps the word ‘lucky’ is too casual given the epochal significance of this dreadful dawn of the nuclear age.


Not until 2009, a year before his death, did the Japanese government officially decide to recognize Tsutomu Yamaguchi as the first person certified to be a double hibakusha. Apparently even the authentication of atomic victimization became its own further ordeal thanks to the draconian workings of the Japanese state bureaucracy.


While hibakusha remain alive, we are movingly reminded that the tragedies endured in 1945 remain lived realities that should never be interred within a larger impersonal assessment of the military policies that ended the war. We are also reminded of the failure of the organized world community to take the necessary and possible steps to ensure that there are no future generations of hibakusha.

The Nuclear Challenge (4): 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki-The Iran Agreement in Perspective

24 Aug

The Nuclear Challenge (4): 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki-The Iran Agreement in Perspective


Without question the P5 +1 nuclear agreement with Iran is a vital move toward peace and stability in the Middle East, a step back from the maelstrom of conflict that is roiling much of the region, and leaving what stability there is among sovereign states under the control of various absolutisms that repress and exploit their own populations.


At the same time before congratulating the negotiators and building a strong rationale for yet another Nobel Peace Prize given to architects of Western diplomacy, we should pause and peer behind the curtain of hegemonic confusion embellishing a more dubious statecraft by an ever compliant mainstream media. If we pull back the curtain, what do we see?


First of all, we should immediately recognize that the most sensible agreement for the region and the world would have included Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal in the negotiating mix, and yielded a unanimous call for responding to nuclear anxieties with a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. As far I know, every government but Israel in the region, and this includes Iran and Saudi Arabia, favors regional nuclear disarmament, and is decidely uncomfortable with Israel as the sole nuclear weapons state in the region.


Many may feel that I am dreaming when I raise this point, but without the clarifying impact of dreams, political reality remains an opaque spin chamber. In a decent world order that was built on a foundation of law and equality among sovereign states with respect to the challenge of nuclear weapons there would be no double standards and no discriminatory policies. When reflecting on the current emphasis on reaching an agreement with Iran there is a political unwillingness to widen the optic for discussion, much less for implementation, of the most rational and ethically coherent approach to denuclearization of the Middle East.


If we are so obtuse or arrogant to ask ‘why?’ this is so there are several explanations. Undoubtedly, the most illuminating response is to point out that to include Israel’s nuclear weaponry in denuclearization diplomacy would violate ‘the special relationship’ binding the United State to Israel, although not vice versa as the Netanyahu/AIPAC outrageous campaign to undermine the P5 +1 initiative unmistakably demonstrates. Obama’s refusal to go along with Israel’s insistence on far tighter restraints on Iran as a precondition for its acceptance of an agreement is straining the special relationship and weakening the overwhelming support it had previously enjoyed among Jews in the United States. These tensions also reveal that even this most special of special arrangements has its outer limits! Yet it seems evident that these have yet to be discovered by the majority of the U.S. Congress.


Secondly, Iran is targeted by the agreement as a pariah state that is being subjected to a more stringent regime of inspection and restraint than has ever been imposed on any other non-nuclear state. Yet what has Iran done internationally to deserve such harsh treatment? In the period since the Islamic Republic took control of the country in 1979, Iran was aggressively attacked by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1980 with the encouragement and blessings of the United States Government, resulting in approximately one million battlefield deaths in the eight-year war to both sides. In the last decade or so, Iran has been the acknowledged target of destabilizing covert violent acts by the United States and Israel, including targeted assassinations of nuclear scientists and cyber efforts to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. Additionally, Israel has made a series of unlawful threats of military attack and the United States has exhibits Martian solidarity by uttering somewhat more veiled assertions of its residual reliance on a military option, recently rearticulated by Obama as ‘war’ being the only alternative to the agreement should it be rejected by the United States.


We should not forget that Iran that is surrounded by belligerent adversaries openly talking about the feasibility of military attacks upon their country under present world conditions. From a purely realist perspective it is Iran that has one of the most credible security claims ever made to acquire nuclear weapons as a deterrent weapon in response to Israeli aggressiveness reinforced by American backing. After all, it has been reliably disclosed and documented that Israel on more than one occasion was on the verge of attacking Iraq, backing off at the last minute due only to splits within the Israeli cabinet over issues of feasibility and fears of adverse consequences.


This whole discourse on Iran’s nuclear program is notable for presuming that policy options can be selected by its adversaries without any consideration of the relevance of international law. Even supposing that Iran was, in fact, overtly seeking a nuclear weapon, and approaching a threshold of acquisition, this set of conditions would not validate recourse to force. There is no foundation whatsoever in international law for launching an attack to preempt another country from acquiring nuclear weapons. The U.S. relied on such a pretext to justify its attack on Iraq in 2003, but such an argument was rejected by the UN Security Council, and the American led attack and occupation were widely viewed as contrary to international law and the UN Charter. To launch a non-defensive attack on Iran would be a flagrant violation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter and of the norm prohibiting recourse to aggressive war used to convict German and Japanese surviving leaders after World War II of state crime. It is well to acknowledge that Iran succumbed to a kind of geopolitical blackmail by accepting this one-sided agreement. It is hardly surprising that the logic of geopolitics triumphed over respect for international law, and yet the fact that the liberal media and world public opinion smile so gratefully, apparently not realizing what an unhealthy an atmosphere exists, is discouraging, and not a good omen for the future.


Maybe there could be a case for bending, or even breaking international law, if Iran was genuinely posing a plausible threat that could not be met through diplomacy and defensive capabilities. But the realities are quite different. Iran has been the target of unlawful threats and various forms of covert intervention, and has responded with responsible caution, if at all. To reinforce this one-sided experience of insecurity with this kind of agreement sets the unfortunate perverse precedent of treating the victim of an unlawful intervention as the culprit justifying international sanctions, and possibly a future military onslaught. This represents a perversion of justice, as well as exhibiting a fundamental disregard of international law.


This reasoning is not meant to exonerate Iran from severe criticism for its internal failures to uphold the human rights of its citizens or for its continued punitive action against the leaders of the Green Revolution. It is important to realize that regulating recourse to international uses of force has been deliberately separated in the UN Charter from interfering in state/society relations absent the commission of severe crimes against humanity or genocide, and a green light is given by the UN Security Council for what amounts to ‘humanitarian intervention,’ recently justified by reference to the emergent international norm of a ‘right to protect’ or R2P. Such a R2P justification was put forward and controversially enacted in Libya in 2011.


True, during the Ahmedinejad years irresponsible fiery and provocative language was used by Tehran with reference to Israel, including repeated calls for the abolition of the Zionist project. The language used by Ahmedinejad was given its most inflammatory twist by Israeli translations of the Farsi original. Read more objectively, it was not Jews as such that were the subject of the invective, or even Israel, but Zionism and its belligerent behavior in the region, especially its refusal over the course of decades to achieve a sustainable peace with the Palestinian people, and on the contrary, its policy of continual land grabbing in Palestine to make peace between the two peoples an increasingly distant prospect of diminishing relevance in the domains of practical diplomacy.


The principal point of this analysis is to show that this agreement reflects the primacy of geopolitics, the neglect of international law, the impact of the US/Israel special relationship, and yet despite these drawbacks, it is still the best that supporters of peace and stability can hope for under present conditions of world order. Such a reality is occluded by the presentation of the debate in the United States as mainly the exaggerated mini-dramas associated with pressuring key members of Congress to vote for or against the agreement and engaging in sophisticated discussions as to whether the constraints imposed by the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, although the strongest ever imposed, are still as strong as Obama claims or as some uncertain Congress people demand. As argued here, support for the agreement is overwhelmingly in the national, global, regional, and human interest, but this assessment does not mean we should view world order through the distorting lens of heavily rose-tinted glasses.


This nuclear agreement reflects where we are in dealing with global crises, not where we should be. It is this distinction that is suppressed by the liberal media and government spokespersons that tout the agreement as an extraordinary achievement of international diplomacy. If we value international law, global justice, and indeed the future of the human species, then the distinction between the realm of the ‘feasible’ and the realm of the ‘desirable’ deserves energetic critical exposure by all of us who fancy ourselves as citizen pilgrims, that is, devotees of human and natural survival, as well as of global justice and human rights.

Why Congress Must Support the Nuclear Agreement With Iran

22 Aug


[Prefatory Note: this post republishes an article appearing in the Huffinton Post on Aug. 21, 2015. It is jointly written with Akbar Ganji, an important human rights defender who spent several years for his efforts in an Iranian jail. Ganji is a leading commentator on Iranian affairs and world issues, and recipient of an International Press Association World Press Hero award. Our articles stresses the critical importance of obtaining American approval of the nuclear agreement.] 



Why Congress Must Support the Nuclear Agreement With Iran


Akbar Ganji & Richard Falk


What should have been an occasion of diplomatic rejoicing has turned into an ugly partisan struggle over whether or not the international agreement negotiated with Iran will or will not be approved by the United States Government. The extremely troublesome obstruction to the agreement is centered in the U.S. Congress where anti-Obama Republicans are teaming up with pro-Netanyahu Democrats to create uncertainty as to whether the arrangments negotiated with such persistence by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council together with Germany will be undermined by this unprecedented leverage being exerted by Israel on the internal governmental processes in America. It should be appreciated that the agreement has been unanimously endorsed by a positive vote of all 15 members of the Security Council, a rarity in UN politics for an issue of this geopolitical magnitude.


In the end this debate raises some fundamental questions about American domestic politics along with its leadership in the Middle East and indeed, the credibility of its global role. Here is an agreement, restricting Iran’s freedom of action with regard to its nuclear program beyond that imposed on any other country ever, clearly serving the national interest of the United States in Middle Eastern stability, an outcome of dedicated efforts by the President and Secretary of State to find a way to avoid both another war in the region and a dangerous nuclear arms race.


That such a diplomatic breakthrough is being so furiously opposed posts a warning that irrationality is mounting a serious challenge to common sense and self-interest. As Obama has noted on several occasions he knows of no other leader that interferes so directly in the national policy debates of a foreign country than deos Netanyahu( 1 and 2 ) . Britain’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond observed: “Israel wants a permanent state of stand-off and I don’t believe that’s in the interests of the region. I don’t believe it’s in our interest.”


Israel has used all the influence at its disposal to block approval, mobilizing rich ultra-Zionist donors in the U.S. to create a war chest of $20 milion and relying on AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) to twist enough legislative arms to override an expected Obama veto if the agreement is turned down by a majority in the two houses of Congress. This drive has been led by the ever belligerent Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, but it is disturbing to realize that all the leading political parties in Israel are united in their opposition to the agreement. This alone tells us the degree to which political attitudes in Israel are out of sinc with those prevailing in the rest of the Middle East, and indeed the world.


As such, there is a moment of truth for the relationship between the United States and Israel. A rejection of the agreement will raise serious questions about the capacity of this country to pursue a foreign policy that reflects its best interests and dominant values. It will also raise doubts about whether it is capable of constructive leadership in the Middle East and the world. If the agreement is approved, as we firmly believe it should be, it will not only confirm the autonomy of national institutions in the United States but show that the alliance relationship with Israel can withstand disagreement when vital issues are at stake.


The Iran Problem


The Islamic Republic of Iran is a religious dictatorship that systematically violates the rights of its citizens, and has demonstrated enmity toward the United States since the 1979 Revolution. Despite this, compared with other Islamic countries of the Middle East and North Africa, it is far better situated to realize democracy and respect human rights.


Iran is a stable nation that has not invaded another country for nearly 300 years. Its population has nearly more than doubled since the 1979 Revolution, but its number of university students has increased by a factor of 27, with more than 60 percent of them female. The most important international writings of Western liberal, feminist, and secular thinkers have been translated into Farsi, including the work of some of the most important Jewish thinkers. Iran has a large middle class, and is the only country in the region, aside from Turkey, that has the prerequisites for a transition to democracy despite problematic features of the relations between state and society.


For over 22 years Netanyahu has been “making” nuclear bombs for Iran, continuously claiming that Iran is only a short time away from having the bomb. The predictions have turned out to be false and inflammatory, but his desire and appetite for war with Iran seems only to have increased over time. The nuclear agreement with Iran, which has imposed severe restrictions on its peaceful nuclear program despite going well beyond what the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty requires, has agitated Netanyahu and the political mainstream in Israel. There are several explanations of this irrational Israeli response to an agreement that help all in the region. Netanyahu has engaged in fear-mongering that has mobilized Israeli society. Beyond this, a focus on Iran’s nuclear program draws attention away from other difficult problems confronting Israel,, including the Palestinian problem and its own covertly acquired arsenal of nuclear weapons.


National interests of the United States or Netanyahu’s political interests?


As President Obama has repeatedly said, the only alternative to the nuclear agreement with Iran is war. But, this would be a war that Israel wants the United States to fight on its behalf. Military attacks on Iran will almost certainly produce an extremely strong reaction by Iran and other nations in that region, a process likely to set the entire Middle East on fire. Iran with its population of 78 million will likely degenerate into another Iraq and Syria, and extremists from throughout the world will stream across its borders to join the struggle. How can risking such an outcome possibly be in the interests of the United States?


Approving the nuclear agreement with Iran is by far the least costly solution to whatever problems can be associated with Iran’s nuclear program, and approval will also promote peace and stability in the Middle East. With this background in mind Congress should clearly approve the agreement, and it is also why the citizenry of the United States should welcome it. After approval,, the United States would find itself in an excellent position, perhaps in coopeation with other governments to help address other problems on the Middle East agenda by proposing an ambitious diplomatic package with the following essential elements:


Guaranteeing present national borders through resolutions backed by the United Nations Security Council


Elimination of all weapons of mass destruction from the region through the establishment of a nuclear free zone in the whole of the Middle East


Resolving the Palestinian problem encouraging two-state diplomacy premised on the right of the Palestinian people to form their own independent, viable and contiguous state on all territories occupied since 1967, and if diplomacy fails, then more coercive measures should be imposed by action of the United Nations


A collective security and mutual non-aggression treaty signed by all the Middle Eastern nations

Investment in the economic and political development of the region combined with the regulation of arms sales

Moving forward from the agreement it is important to appreciate that peace is a common value envisioned and shared by Jews, Muslims, and Christians:

“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”(Matthew 5:9).

“Making peace is the best” (an-Nissa 128) and “O, you who believe! Fulfill the promises and covenants made [by you]” (al-Maidah 1).



For too long these shared values, deeply embedded in the worldviews of these civilizational perspectives, have been ignored, even repudiated. The nuclear agreement with Iran creates the opportunity to move the flow of history in better directions. Such an opportunity must not be lost. If lost, the United States and Israel would be morally, politically, and legally responsible for whatever harm befalls the region and the world.


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