Tag Archives: Iran

Aftermath of Political Ruptures: Iran, Egypt, Turkey

12 Aug

 

 

[Prefatory Note: This post offers a commentary of recent dramatic developments within Turkey and the largely critical international media and diplomatic responses. It compares international reactions to political ruptures in Iran (1979) and Egypt (2011, 2013), and encourages greater public attention to the importance attached by the Turkish citizenry to the defeat of the coup attempt and more sympathy with the kind of political leadership provided by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan since the coup attempt of July 15th.]

 

Aftermath of Political Ruptures: Iran, Egypt, Turkey

 

 A political rupture is a sequence of events affecting essential relations between state and society, and its occurrence is neither widely anticipated nor properly interpreted after its occurrence. After a rupture there occurs a revisioning of political reality that involves a recalibration of state/society relations in ways that remain occasions of enduring historic remembrance. Often these occasions are negative happenings, as Pearl Harbor and 9/11 are for the United States, but sometimes they epitomize points of light in the past as with July 4th commemorating the issuance of the Declaration of Independence.

 

9/11 was the most recent American experience of a political rupture. It resecuritized state/society relations within the country and transformed foreign policy. It marginalized debates about economic globalization and enlarged the war paradigm beyond conflicts between and within sovereign states. In so doing it highlighted new features of intrastate conflict, treated the entire world as a counterterrorist battlefield, and rewrote the international law of self-defense. Instead of responding to attacks, national self-defense, understood as policy rather than right was dramatically extended to encompass remote perceived threats and even latent potential capabilities.

 

Another innovative feature of major conflicts in the present global setting is the preeminence of non-state actors as principal antagonists. This preeminence takes the dual form of the United States as ‘global state’ and ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other as non- or at most quasi-territorial political actors, but surely not Westphalian states as understood by the membership rules of the UN. The United States in many of its roles and activities operates as a Westphalian state that accepts limits on its sovereign rights based on internationally recognized borders and the territory thereby enclosed and respects the sovereignty of other states. What makes the United States a post-Westphalian or global state is its projection of military capabilities throughout the entire world reinforced by non-territorial patterns of security claims along with extensive global networks of diplomatic, economic, and cultural influence.

 

What this all mean is complex, evolving, and controversial. It does signify that war has again, as before Paris Peace Pact of 1928, become a largely discretionary domain of policy, at least for geopolitical actors. We are experiencing, in the arresting phrasing of Mary Kaldor, an era of ‘new wars.’ The rewriting of international law is being done by way of authoritative and largely uncontested state practice, mainly that of the United States. At the margins, there persists a subordinate interpretation of international law of war that clings to what is written on the books, inscribed in the politically unrevisable UN Charter, and shaped by quite divergent authoritative practices that provides a useful summary of expectations with respect to uses of force. Jurists have yet to clarify, much less codify, these new realities in a reformulated jurisprudence that to be usefully descriptive must respond conceptually and normatively to the increasingly post-Westphalian character of world order.

 

There are also more contained political ruptures that have their primary focus on the internal nature of state/society relations, and seem to be territorial or regional occurrences that may have global repercussions, but do not challenge the preexisting frameworks of law and security that shape world order. I have a particular interest in, undoubtedly reflecting my experienced proximity to three political ruptures that have taken place in the Middle East: Iran, 1979; Egypt, 2011/2013; Turkey 2016. In each of these instances, the issues raised touched not only on the control and reform of state structures, but also on state/society balances pertaining to security and freedom, the relations of religion and politics, the contested agency of popular social forces, and the expansion or contraction of constitutional democracy. In each of these national settings, the controversial responsibility of the United States as influential actor introduces the often problematic role of a global state as a crucial actor in the interplay of contending national political forces.

 

Comparing these political ruptures is instructive with respect to grasping what works and what fails when it comes to transformative politics that are variously engineered from below, from above, from without, and from within to achieve or resist fundamental changes. In some instances, there are coalitions of forces that blur these distinctions, and the interaction is dialectic rather than collaborative or antagonistic. Especially, the imagined or demonstrated relevance of external involvement gives rise to conspiracy explanations, which are denied and hidden until the whistleblowing of Wikileaks and its various collaborators exposes more of the truth, although not necessarily a coherent or widely accepted counter-narrative. The formal diplomacy of world order is still largely premised on the autonomy and legitimacy of sovereign states, the major normative premise of the European invention of the state-centric Westphalian system, but this has always been qualified to varying degrees by geopolitical ambitions and realities, and despite the collapse of colonialism, this hierarchical ordering role remains a defining feature of the contemporary world, but it tends to have become more covert and difficult to establish on the basis of open sources. Unlike the imperial past when geopolitical hierarchies were overt and transparent, post-Westphalian patterns of intervention and extra-territorial governance are largely kept as hidden from public scrutiny as possible.

 

My intention is to mention very briefly the experiences of Iran and Egypt, and concentrate on the unfolding situation in Turkey after the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016. Because these developments in Turkey have yet to assume a definitive or final shape, the fluidity of the situation is illustrative of the forces in contention, and the outcome will for better and worse influence the future of Turkish democracy as well as exerting a major impact on regional and global alignments.

 

Iran 1979: From the perspective of 2016, it is difficult to appreciate the intensity of the political rupture brought about by the extraordinary popular uprising in Iran that brought an end to the dynastic rule of the Pahlevi Dynasty by the abdication of the Shah. What was extraordinary beyond the display of the transformative impact of a mobilized people, prepared to risk death by confronting the violent guardians of state power, to express their opposition to the established order, was the role of Ayatollah (or Imam) Ruhollah Khomeini in leading the anti-Shah movement. In its failure to perceive the threat to the Shah until it was far too late, the United States was blindsided by the emergence of political Islam as a source of resistance to its grand strategy in the Middle East that was constructed around the ideological suppositions of the Cold War, that is, being anti-Soviet with respect to international alignments and anti-Marxist, pro-capitalist with regard to internal political llfe. Islam was treated either as irrelevant or as an important ally.

 

Iran was a major theater of contestation throughout the Cold War. It should be remembered that the United States has somewhat admitted the CIA role in the 1953 coup against the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mosaddegh. It was claimed that Mosaddegh was opening Iran to Soviet influence, but the moves against him seem mainly prompted by his strident form of economic nationalism, climaxing with the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. It is notable that after the Shah was put back on his throne, an early initiative was to re-privatize the oil industry, dividing ownership between European and American oil giants, thereby supplanting British corporate dominance of Iranian oil production.

 

The 1979 rupture was notable in several respects: the emergence of political Islam as a formidable challenge to Western interests throughout the post-colonial Middle East; the revolutionary transformation of the Iranian state, establishing an Islamic Republic governing a theocratically reformed constitutional framework and an accompanying state structure; the identification of the United States, as ‘the great dragon,’ the principal enemy of Iran and Islam, a situation further aggravated by the hostage crisis following the occupation of the American Embassy in Tehran that lasted more than a year; the inflammatory impact of the failed American-led effort to achieve counter-revolutionary goals by encouraging the Iraqi attack in 1980 and by way of various covert operations designed to destabilize the country from within.

 

In its enduring effects, the political rupture of 1979 produced an Islamic theocratic state establishing a limited form of democratic governance, a prolonged encounter with the West as well as with regional rivals, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel; an ebb and flow between military threats, sanctions, and challenges directed at the leadership in Iran and diplomatic initiatives seeking some degree of normalization, most notably the Iran Nuclear Agreement of 2015.

 

Egypt 2011 & 2013: Without any direct acknowledgement to Iran, what took place in Egypt, following a similar rupture in Tunisia, was a successful uprising that led Hosni Mubarak, whose dictatorial presence had dominated Egyptian politics for 30 years, to relinquish political power. The enduring importance of the popular uprising was to exhibit the political agency of a mobilized populace in the Arab world, as well as demonstrate that social media could serve as a potent weapon of political resistance if properly used. Yet, in retrospect, the movement associated with Tahrir Square in 2011 lacked a political understanding either of the politics of Egypt or of the extent to which the established order encompassed the armed forces and was determined to retain control of the state after sacrificing its long term leader. The lack of awareness about the true balance of political forces in Egypt soon manifested itself by way of an electoral success of Islamic political parties, especially the party associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, far beyond what had been anticipated. The failure of the Tahrir Square militants to appreciate the counter-revolutionary danger was expressed especially by their willingness to leave the former governmental bureaucracy in tact and to view the armed forces as trustworthy executors of the popular will rather than as beholden to their affiliations with the old established political and economic order as it operated in the Mubarak era and by benefitting from its close professional and political links to the United States.

 

For all these reasons, the political developments in Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was elected president help us grasp the strength of counter-revolutuonary response that culminated in the coup led by General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in 2013, with huge populist backing under the slogan ‘the armed forces and the people are one’ (or fingers of the same hand’). The result of the 2013 coup was the restoration of authoritarian rule, more bloody in its oppressive tactics than under Mubarak, a crackdown directed at peaceful demonstrators and extended to the elected Muslim Brotherhood leadership of the country, and significantly, an immediate smoothing of relations with the United States, European Union, and Israel, as well as being the recipient of a major infusion of economic assistance from several Gulf country governments.

 

What these Egyptian events disclose is the acute vulnerability of

an extra-legal challenge to the established order that fails to take control of key state institutions after succeeding in eliminating the dictatorial ruler. Further, that popular discontent can be turned against political reformism to turn back the clock of progress, especially if the armed forces remain responsive to relevant geopolitical priorities and the new leadership fails to deliver economic gains to the population, especially the urban poor. Perhaps, the most enduring effect of the combination of the 2011 and 2013 events is to overcome the earlier impression of the deeply entrenched passivity of the Arab masses, and the related insight that populism can work either for or against secularist or Islamic agendas depending on the domestic context, and its shifting balance of forces.

 

Turkey 2016: The coup attempt that came close to succeeding, but failed, on the night of July 15th, was immediately converted by the Turkish government into an instant holiday commemorating those who gave their lives to save the Turkish republic against its enemies. There is little doubt in Turkey, regardless of diverging views on other issues, that the Hizmet movement headed by Fetullah Gülen bears prime responsibility for the coup attempt. And there is again wide acceptance among Turks of the related perception that the United States Government aided and abetted both the coup attempt and had been deeply involved for many years in lending various measures of support to the Gülen movement. To what extent and to what end is much discussed, but with little hard evidence, but many suspicious links between the CIA and Fetullah Gülen have been exposed, including even sponsorship of Gülen’s green card residency in the United States by such CIA notables as Graham Fuller.

 

It is too early to sort out the facts sufficiently to put forward a clear account of the coup attempt, its peculiar timing, its botched execution, and its political intentions. What is clear at this point is that the failure of the coup is a political rupture unlike either the Iranian Revolution or the Egyptian uprising as reversed by a populist military coup. The reactions by the Erdoğan led Turkish government centered on seizing the occasion of the aftermath as an opportunity to forge unity and national reconciliation, and this has so far had impressive results in the principal form of creating a common front among the three leading political parties in the country, culminating in the Yenikapı rally that brought several million people together on August 7th in Istanbul to listen to speeches by the heads of the Government and the heads of the two leading opposition parties. As further signs of what is being called the Yenkapı Spirit were giant portraits of Erdoğan and Kemal Ataturk on the wall behind the podium used by the speakers, and as notable, a long quote from Ataturk in the midst of Erdoğan’s speech. This positive inclusion of Ataturk is a strong indication that the governing party is making a gesture of acceptance to Kemalists and other secular oppositionists who were viewed as the staunchest critics of Erdoğan’s style and substance, as well as providing reassurance that the Turkish state will not abandon its secularist orientation as it moves toward constitutional reform and the distinctive post-coup attempt challenge of eliminating Gülenist penetration from the institutions of state and society that had long nurtured subversive intentions in their secretive leadership cadres while pretending even to their faithful adherents to be promoting nonviolence, moderation, human rights, and a moderate, flexible Islam.

 

 

After such a long period of polarization the anti-Erdoğan secularists, although at least deeply grateful that the coup failed and intensely critical of the Gülenist plot as well as convinced of America’s dirty hands, remain wary and suspicious of Erdoğan’s motives. They point out that Ataturk’s portrait was only present and of the same size as Erdoğan’s because Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the CHP (Peoples Republican Party), made it a condition of his participation and presence. They also note that Erdoğan in his speech referred to Ataturk as ‘Mustafa Kemal’ avoiding the honorific name conferred by the Turkish Parliament. Opponents of Erdoğan contend that he is using the atmosphere of heightened patriotism to carry out a government purge, detaining and purging thousands, declaring a state of emergency, whipping up popular support for restoring the death penalty, and pushing ahead with plans for a referendum that endorses his strong advocacy of constitutional reform featuring the establishment of an executive presidency with minimal checks and balances.

 

Tempering this skepticism of the anti-Erdoğan secularist are several considerations that lead to a more hopeful overall appraisal of the present situation. First, and foremost, Erdoğan has staked his politica future on an approach based on reconciliation that to work in the future entails a commitment to greater participatory and more inclusive democracy. This may seem expedient, but was far from predictable prior to July 15th. It would have been quite feasible in the inflamed post-coup atmosphere for Erdoğan to have strongly reaffirmed majoritarian democracy, claiming that he had received a mandate from the Turkish people to govern without constraint and to reconstruct the state along lines favored by the AKP. The reconciliation approach may not last, and depends on mutuality, but as long as it does, the stress on inclusive democracy implies a willingness to make compromises, including the reaffirmation of a secularist foundation of the proposed new constitution. True, Kılıçdaroğlu’s bargained to get Ataturk’s picture to hang at the rally, but the willingness of Erdoğan to give ground and exhibit flexibility is what gives ground for hope about the future.

 

As far as the mass suspensions are concerned, especially as involving journalists, the media, and educational institutions, there are reasons for concern. There are also contextual reasons to be

hesitant about voicing criticisms oblivious to the security threats that are still present and hard to assess and identify. After all, the Turkish state barely survived a coup arranged from within, and evidently reinforced by elaborate networks of Gũlen supporters that had infiltrated so widely as to make it virtually impossible to distinguish friend from foe. Part of the Gülen strategy was to gain and spread its influence through its extensive school system and the government-run military high schools. There are numerous seemingly reliable reports that entrance exam questions were given in advance to students later made subject to the cultic discipline of the Hizmet movement. What remains to be seen is whether a conscientious effort will be made to distinguish between innocence and guilt in accordance with due process and the rule of law. The state is entitled to take reasonable measures to protect itself, and this includes the declaration of a 90 day ‘state of emergency,’ but a claim of extraordinary authority is still a time to ascertain whether the rights of citizens are being respected and distinctions made between the guilty and the innocent. Again, if Erdoğan wants to sustain the Yenkapı Spirit, he has a strong incentive to avoid launching a witch hunt, and to roll back quickly excesses whenever detected.

 

The political rupture in Turkey, up to this point, concerns the core of state/society relations. The fact that the failure of the coup attempt is being mainly attributed to ‘the people’ is a recognition of the power and responsibility of the citizenry to defend an elected government when threatened by unlawful and violent seizures of power. As such it extends the democratic mandate beyond the ballot box, and explores a protective role for and responsibility of the Turkish populace. In the case of the populist role in Iran and Egypt, it was to mount opposition against the abuses of the state, while in Turkey it was quite opposite–the defense of the state against a hostile and unlawful enterprise of subversion led by Gülen operatives in the military.

 

As with the earlier ruptures in Iran and Egypt, the United States Government seems to have had a shadowy, as yet unproven, role in the events of July 15th, as well as in the buildup over the years of the vast networks of Gülen influence, not only in Turkey but by way of its educational presence in over 100 countries. The American relationship with Turkey is deeply at risk if it turns out that the CIA was actively intervening in an important NATO ally. Anger and suspicions resulted from the failure of the U.S. to show more support for the elected Turkish government as the coup events unfolded, contrasting unfavorably with an immediate response by Russia and Iran. The persistence of anti-Americanism is also dependent on how the United States handles Turkey’s formal extradition request. For technical legal reasons, as well as probable political embarrassment, it seems extremely doubtful that the request will be granted. As Erdoğan has already made clear, an American refusal to extradite, regardless of reasons given, will be viewed as unacceptable. In Turkey it will not lessen the anger if the decision is couched in standard legal reasoning (no prospect of fair trial; possible retroactive application of capital punishment; and accusation centered on non-extradictable political crime). Recall the United States refusal after 9/11 to accept the response of the Taliban-led Afghan government that it would be willing to deliver Osama Bin Laden, but only if it was given convincing evidence of his role in the attacks. Such a response was put to one side, and did not for an instant divert the Bush presidency from moving ahead with its regime-changing military intervention.

 

As with the Iran rupture, the developments in Turkey seem already to have had profound geopolitical effects, especially greatly strengthening Turkish moves toward establishing a close diplomatic and economic relationship with Russia, moving closer to Iran, and adopting a less zero-sum approach to the Syrian conflict. As yet neither Ankara nor Washington has mentioned these policy shifts as potential sources of tension. In fact, the U.S. Government has indicated its willingness to explore seriously the Turkish extradition request. Much is at stake, including the fight against ISIS being carried on from the major American Incirlik Airbase where 50 nuclear weapons are reportedly stored.

 

Post-rupture Turkey presents many uncertainties at this stage. Among the most important are the following:

 

–is there a continuing serious threat of a second coup attempt?

 

–will the current spirit of reconciliation based on participatory and inclusive democracy hold? Will it be broadened to include the pro-Kurdish political party (HDP)? Will Erdoğan revert to his earlier (2002-2009) style of moderate and pragmatic leadership, abandoning the kind of authoritarian ambitions that proved so divisive after 2010?

 

–what impact, if any, will Erdoğan’s Muslim devoutness have on the political future of Turkey?

 

–how will geopolitics be affected? A diplomacy of equi-distance as between Russia and the United States/Europe? Realignment by shifts toward Russia, Iran, maybe China and India?

 

How these various questions will be resolved cannot be foretold with any confidence, and depend on complex interactions within Turkey, in the region, and the world. It would encourage better future outcomes if the media in the West adopted a more evenhanded approach that empathized with the trauma generated by the coup attempt and the difficulties of restored confidence in the loyalty of public institutions, particularly the armed forces. Unfortunately, up to now, the positive aspects of the response to the Turkish rupture of July 15th have been largely ignored in Europe and North America and the problematic aspects stressed usually without even making due allowance for context.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Horrifying Syrian Dilemma Persists

15 Sep

 

 

[Prefatory Note: This post is a somewhat modified version of the text published on the Middle East Eye website on September 9, 2015, and here by prior arrangement.]

 

On its surface Syria offers seems an ideal case for humanitarian intervention. An incredible half of the 23 million Syrians are either internally displaced or refugees living in dire circumstances, aggravating the migrant crisis currently overwhelming Europe. What is worse, mass atrocities have continued under the authority of the Damascus regime since March 2011, and to some degree by actions of the opposition. Further, for more than a year ISIS has emerged as a principal opposition force in Syria, and is responsible for unprecedented barbarism in large areas of the country under its control.

 

Beyond this, a diplomatic resolution of the conflict has so far failed miserably. The UN has appointed several distinguished Special Envoys who have resigned in disgust unable to rely on ceasefire reassurances from Bashar el-Assad. The two Geneva inter-governmental conferences that were convened with great effort ended in utter frustration. The United States is far from blameless, seemingly avoiding Russian compromises early on because it believed that the insurgency was on the verge of victory, and diminishing prospects later by insisting that Iran be excluded from the diplomatic process because of Israeli and Saudi sensitivities.

 

To complete this depressing picture, the parties to the conflict seem badly stuck, neither having a path to victory nor displaying any willingness to work toward a credible compromise. The opposition to the Assad government remains incoherent and disunited, and certainly seems incapable of offering Syria a workable alternative.

 

Not surprisingly given this overall situation, especially the spectacle of persisting civilian suffering, with its regional spillover effects destabilizing Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey, is prompting a renewed call for humanitarian intervention, most influentially, in the form of a no fly zone (NFZ). It is contended that a well implemented NFZ could protect Syrians from the ravages being wrought by notorious barrel bombs. These terrible weapons are mainly used by Damascus to make civilian governance impossible in rebel held areas of the country. Proponents of intervention argue that once a NFZ is established it will ease civilian suffering, and might in due course exert sufficient pressure on the Syrian leadership to produce a political climate in which an acceptable diplomatic solution is finally attainable and this dreadful war brought to an end, a result that might even have at this point the benefit of a nudge from Iran and Russia.

 

Responsibility to Protect

 

The UN recently held a self-congratulatory session celebrating the 10th anniversary of the R2P (or responsibility to protect) norm, while acknowledging that there was work to be done considering the existence of ongoing killing fields as Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Central African Republic, and North Korea. Notably absent from the list, a supreme instance of diplomatic tact at its hypocritical worst, was Gaza, and more generally, occupied Palestine, which since 2012 is after all a ‘state’ in the eyes of the General Assembly. Such other geopolitical touchy places as Kashmir, Rakhine, Xinjiang were also conveniently ignored in this effort to assess the record of R2P’s first decade. Leaving these awkward silences aside, at least the question should be asked: ‘Why has the R2P norm not been applied to Syria?’ The answer illuminates what is wrong with the cynical way world order operates in a post-Cold War setting, being more protective of trade and finance than it is of people, more motivated by oil than by a genuine humanitarian rescue mission.

 

The superficial obstacle to a R2P operation in Syria is the geopolitical standoff between states continuing to back the Assad regime and those supporting the opposition. This means that approval of an NFZ as a tactic compatible with the UN Charter is unavailable because of an anticipated Russian veto. Thus any use of force, such as establishing a NFZ, in either the north or south of Syria, or both, would neither have the backing of the UN Security Council nor qualify as self-defense under international law. This means that such an undertaking would violate the Charter on its key principle of prohibiting recourse to non-defensive international force without authorization from the Security Council, thereby disregarding the requirement of UN approval that is a critical feature of the R2P approach.

 

Proceeding outside the UN would further undermine the authority of international law with respect to war/peace issues. A less legalistic and constitutionalist explanation of this blockage arises from the dark side of the R2P precedent set in Libya back in 2011 when Russia and China and other SC members, despite their reluctance, were persuaded to allow a proposed humanitarian NFZ in Libya to be established only to find that the UN debate was a notorious instance of bait-and-switch. It was obvious that NATO’s intentions from the outset were far more expansive than the authorizing resolution in the Security Council, and once the military operation began immediately employed tactics seeking regime change in Tripoli rather than civilian protection for Benghazi. What seemed to skeptics of the R2P approach as an outright deception in its first test of R2P left a bad taste that has definitely discouraged a cooperative approach to Syria that engaged Russia. The Libyan precedent is not the whole story of relative passivity of the international community by any means. Syria’s antiaircraft capabilities also inhibited coercive action by making it more problematic to suppose that air power could shift the balance quickly and at moderate costs against the Assad regime.

 

 

 

 

Kosovo—A Poor Precedent

 

Then there is the earlier Kosovo precedent in which a humanitarian intervention was controversially carried out without UN approval, under the authority of NATO before the R2P norm existed and in the face of strong Russian opposition. Arguably, the operation was a success, Serbian oppressive rule ended, Kosovo and its people saved from an impending episode of ethnic cleansing similar to the Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian males (1995), and despite being ignored in the undertaking, the UN willingly entered the post-conflict scene in a big way to help Kosovo achieve transition to political independence. One influential appraisal of Kosovo pronounced the NATO intervention to be unlawful, yet legitimate, because it effectively removed a credible threat of imminent threat of mass atrocity at a moderate cost.

Several problems arise if relying on Kosovo to justify establishing a NFZ in Syria. First of all, Syria is a much larger country within which a civil war has been raging for more than four years causing an estimated 300,000 deaths, the Syrian government is reported to have sophisticated antiaircraft capabilities. Secondly, Europe was unified with regard to an anti-Serb intervention in Kosovo, with the partial exception of Greece, whereas the Middle East is so deeply divided with respect to Syria as to be engaged on opposite sides of a proxy war with sharp sectarian dimensions. Thirdly, the opponents of NFZ, unless persuaded to change their position, are more deeply involved, and have the capabilities to offset the impact of such an operation against their ally in Damascus.

 

Fourthly, assuming that a Syrian NFZ would be effective, the elimination of Syrian air power might actually work to the advantage of ISIS, which operates exclusively on the ground. Fourthly, unlike Kosovo where the U.S. was eager to demonstrate that NATO still had a role in the post-Cold War world, the geopolitical motivation in Syria remains confused and weak, being uncertain despite the passage of time. Also, the U.S. has had bad experiences with its recent interventions in the region, especially Iraq and Afghanistan, and wants to avoid being drawn into yet another war in a predominantly Muslim country. And fifthly, the present scene in Libya and Iraq show that handling the effects of even a militarily successful intervention can lead to prolonged chaos and militia governance. Such experiences of sustained chaos are not viewed by most of the affected population as improvements over the old authoritarian orders held together by the brutality of Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein, or Assad. When the alternatives are chaos or order, populist sentiments generally opt for order. This pattern has been evident throughout the region, especially in the aftermath of the short-lived Arab Spring.

 

Further in the background are considerations associated with state-centric world order in a post-colonial setting, which in the Middle East has left many bad memories of the harm the European colonial powers did to the region after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. To override the sovereignty of a state, and its capacity for national resistance, ignores the experience of the world in the period since 1945 where almost every Western intervention has ended in political failure.

 

The West’s Dilemma

 

So here is the dilemma: to stand by doing nothing while mass atrocities occur year after year in Syria with no end in sight is an intolerable international failure of moral responsibility for human suffering of this innocent civilian population. Yet to do something that will actually improve the situation is far from obvious, and the record of NFZs in the kind of situation that exists in Syria is not encouraging, nor are other coercive alternatives. General Martin Dempsey, the American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently warned against establishing a NFZ in Syria, pointing out that the government’s antiaircraft capabilities are at least five times greater than what Libya possessed, including some high end systems capable of shooting down high altitude planes.

 

 

There are some alternatives that try to find tactics that do something without making the situation worse. One sort proposal is to propose a more assertive approach by the United States, comprehensively advocated in a recent report of the International Crisis Group, believes that a series of non-military and covert initiatives could make a difference. It argues that this approach should start with what is logistically easier, a focus on the South of the country where moderate anti-regime forces are in greater control, and then if successful, extending such tactics to the more contested Northwest where Syrian antiaircraft pose a greater obstacle and ISIS has its strongholds.

 

All in all, the West cannot stand one more failed intervention in the Middle East, nor can it leave unattended a deep humanitarian crisis that spilling over Syrian borders. The burden in such a tragic situation should be placed on pro-interventionists to show convincingly how a NFZ can be established and maintained in the face of expected resistance from within and opposition from without. So far this burden has not been sustained. There are other ways to help alleviate civilian suffering and to exert greater pressure on Damascus that do not rely on such a blunt and unreliable instrument as a NFZ. In the background is the steadfast refusal of the United States or its European allies to be willing to contemplate an occupation of Syria via a ground attack, not because of legal or moral inhibitions, but due to the lack of political support for any military operation likely to result in significant casualties for the intervenor.

 

There exists a more drastic diplomatic approach that should have been tried long ago, and still seems worth the effort: bringing Iran and Russia into a peace process as major players, overriding objections by Saudi Arabia and Israel. Such a diplomatic atmosphere might at last create the war-ending conditions for compromise and cooperation that include putting pressure on Damascus. In such an altered setting, either a NFZ, or an equivalent proposal could find support within the Security Council or such a measure would no longer be needed. This diplomatic initiative is admittedly a long shot, but better than the alternatives of doing nothing or acting outside the framework of the UN and international law with scant prospects of success and big chances that things would go badly wrong. There are reliable reports circulating that the U.S. Government rejected a Russian backed initiative 2012 that would have included Assad being removed from power because Washington was then so convinced that the Damascus government was about to collapse in any event, and no diplomatic compromise was needed. At least, there is now a more realistic understanding of the balance of forces in Syria, and what form of compromise has any chance of being sustained. Unfortunately, however, with the emergence in the meantime of the al-Nusra Front and ISIS, difficult questions arise as to whether in the situation that prevails at present any compromise is sustainable unless externally maintained by a major international presence, which itself seems politically unattainable. 

What this prolonged dilemma in the face of mass atrocity shows is the deficiency of state-centric world order if appraised from the perspective of human wellbeing rather than national interests. The failures in Syria are not just the shortcomings of diplomacy and manipulations of geopolitics, but also a severe mismatch between structures and capabilities of global authority and the vulnerabilities of the peoples of the world. Until these structures are transformed on the basis of the human and global interests Syrian dilemmas in one form or another are bound to recur.

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.

Israel’s Shimon Peres Reacts to the Turkish Elections

10 Jun

 

Newspapers reported on June 9th that former Israeli president Shimon Peres (2007-2014) was pleased by the outcome in Turkey. He is quoted as saying “I am happy about what happened in Turkey – Erdoğan wanted to turn Turkey into Iran, and there is no room for two Iran’s in the Middle East.”

 

It is worth recalling that the downward spiral in relations between Turkey and Israel started in a real way when Erdoğan attacked Israel and Peres personally for defending Israel’s massive attack on Gaza at the 2009 World Economic Forum in the course of a panel in which both he and Peres were members. Erdoğan responded to Peres’ contention that Hamas was responsible for violence against Israeli civilians. His words were undiplomatically blunt: “Mr. Peres, you are a senior citizen and you speak in a loud tone. I feel that your raised voice is due to the guilt you feel. But be sure that my voice will not be raised as yours is. When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill. I know very well how you struck and killed innocent children on the beaches.” So piercing the haze that separates these polite evasions of such international events from the cruel realities under discussion was a welcome rarity: on this occasion Erdoğan was confronting the naked face of power with a truth that needed to be heard. After

interference from the chair, Erdoğan strode off the stage announcing that he was through forever with the World Economic Forum, not for allowing Peres to speak, but for the attempting to stifle a response.

 

The deterioration in Turkish/Israeli relations climaxed the following year when Israeli commandos boarded the Turkish passenger ship, Mavi Marmara, the lead vessel among six in a freedom flotilla containing peace activists bringing humanitarian supplies to Gaza and seeking to break the Israeli blockade. The incident on May 31, 2010 resulted in the death of nine Turkish nationals, and created an enduring rupture in the political relations between the two countries that continues despite efforts by the American president, Barack Obama, to encourage normalization. Turkey is prepared to compromise on the issues raised by the Mavi Marmara attack, but to its credit will not accept normalization until Israel lifts its blockade of Gaza and ceases its use of massive force against the totally vulnerable Gazan civilian population.

 

Erdoğan’s departure from diplomatic protocol at the World Economic Forum illustrated his impulsive tendency to vent his feeling in public places without the usual filters of self-censorship that is second nature for most politicians. Of course, assessing such outbursts generally depends on the context and on whether what is being said so forthrightly has merit or not. Erdoğan’s public venting in relation to policies that were sensitive for secular Turks became particularly frequent, intensifying polarization, especially after the AKP’s one-sided victory in the 2011 general election after which the Turkish leader did seem to embrace a more majoritarian view of democracy (acting on the mandate of the majority of voters), and abandoning the pragmatism of his earlier posture based on an acceptance of republican democracy (that is, respect for minority values and views, checks and balances on the exercise of state power).

 

Reverting to the recent Peres assertion, it is certainly inflammatory and deeply misleading to link Turkey under the AKP with Iran, and to contend that Erdoğan’s hidden project is to convert Turkey into a second Iran. This is both false and insulting, as if Turkey is incapable of self-determination according to the declared will of its own public and elected leaders. There exists no credible evidence that Turkey has in any way endorsed the defining feature of the Islamic Republic of Iran, namely, a theocratic mode of governance.

 

Peres also essentializes Iran, refusing to acknowledge its recent evolution as a result of Hassan Rouhani’s election as president in 2013 and Iran’s forthcoming nuclear diplomacy that went the extra mile in search of a formula that would normalize its regional and global relations, which if accepted by the West and put into practiced, will almost certainly be viewed as a major contribution to regional and world peace. Peres speaks as if Iran is the hermetically sealed embodiment of political evil rather than a country that has struggled to overcome its autocratic past under the Shah, and managed to be stable during this period of exceptional regional turmoil with its theocracy displaying a willingness to indulge a limited democracy despite threats and provocations from the United States and Israel. There is much to criticize in Iran, but for such criticism to be responsible, it should be responsive to actualities, especially in the Middle East where there are such scant grounds for stability, let alone justice.

 

In important respects, the outcome of the Turkish elections is far better interpreted as a Kurdish HDP victory rather than an Erdoğan AKP defeat. Time will tell whether the Kurds will be constructive and creative in this phase of their political engagement within Turkey and in relation to Kurdish political developments in neighboring countries. It will also determine whether Erdoğan is statesmanlike and creative in shaping the political future of the country, taking to heart the electoral message that any shift to a presidential system is not now in the interests of the country.

Iran’s Nuclear Program: Diplomacy, War, and (In)Security in the Nuclear Age

17 Mar

 

Perhaps, Netanyahu deserves some words of appreciation, at least from the Israeli hard right, for the temporary erasure of the Palestinian ordeal from national, regional, and global policy agendas. Many are distracted by the Republican recriminations directed at Obama’s diplomatic initiative to close a deal that exchanges a loosening of sanctions imposed on Iran for an agreement by Tehran to accept intrusive inspections of their nuclear program and strict limits on the amount of enriched uranium of weapons grade that can be produced or retained.

 

We can only wonder about the stability and future prospects of the United States if 47 Republican senators can irresponsibly further jeopardize the peace of the Middle East and the world by writing an outrageous Open Letter to the leadership of Iran. In this reckless political maneuver the government of Iran is provocatively reminded that whatever agreement may be reached by the two governments will in all likelihood be disowned if a Republican is elected president in 2016, or short of that, by nullifying actions taken by a Republican-controlled Congress. Mr. Netanyahu must be smiling whenever he looks at a mirror, astonished by his own ability to get the better of reason and self-interest in America, by his pyrotechnic display of ill-informed belligerence in his March 2nd address to Congress. Surely, political theater of sorts, but unlike a performance artist, Netanyahu is a political player whose past antics have brought death and destruction and now mindlessly and bombastically risk far worse in the future.

 

What interests and disturbs me even more than the fallout from Netanyahu’s partisan speech, are several unexamined presuppositions that falsely and misleadingly frame the wider debate on Iran policy. Even the most respected news sites in the West, including such influential outlets as the NY Times or The Economist, frame the discourse by taking three propositions for granted in ways that severely bias our understanding:

                        –that punitive sanctions on Iran remain an appropriate way to prevent further proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, and enjoyed the backing of the United Nations;

                        –that Iran must not only renounce the intention to acquire nuclear weapons, but their renunciation must be frequently monitored and verified, while nothing at all is done about Israel’s arsenal of nuclear weapons;

                        –that there is nothing intrinsically wrong about Irael’s threats to attack Iran if it believes that this would strengthen its security either in relation to a possible nuclear attack or in relation to Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas.

 

 

 

 

SANCTIONS

 

Sanctions are a form of coercion expressly imposed in this case to exert pressure on Iran to negotiate an agreement that would provide reassurance that it was not seeking to acquire nuclear weaponry. Supposedly, Iran’s behavior made such a reinforcement of the nonproliferation treaty regime a reasonable precaution. Such measures had never been adopted or even proposed in relation to either Germany and Japan, the two main defeated countries in World War II, who have long possessed the technical and material means to acquire nuclear weapons in a matter of months. Iran has repeatedly given assurances that its nuclear program is peacefully aimed at producing energy and for medical applications, not weapons, and has accepted a willingness to have its nuclear program more regulated than is the case for any other country in the world.

 

It should be appreciated that Iran has not been guilty of waging an aggressive war for over 275 year. Not only has it refrained in recent years from launching attacks across its borders, although it has itself been severely victimized by major interventions and aggressions. Most spectacularly, the CIA-facilitated coup in 1953 that restored the Shah to power and overthrew a democratically elected government imposed a dictatorial regime on the country for over 25 years. And in 1980 Iraq invaded Iran with strong encouragement of the United States. Additionally, Iran has been subject over the years to a variety of Western covert operations designed to destabilize its government and disrupt its nuclear program.

 

Despite their UN backing, the case for sanctions seems to be an unfortunate instance of double standards, accentuated by the averted gaze of the international community over the years with respect to Israel’s process of acquisition, possession, and development of nuclear weaponry. This is especially irresponsible, given Israel’s behavior that has repeatedly exhibited a defiant attitude toward international law and world public opinion. I would conclude that Iran the imposition of harsh sanctions on Iran is discriminatory, more likely to intensify that resolve conflict. The proper use of international sanctions is to avert war or implement international law, and not as here to serve as a geopolitical instrument of hard power that seeks to sustain a hierarchical nuclear status quo in the region and beyond.

 

NUCLEAR WEAPONS OPTION

 

Iran is expected not only to forego the option to acquire nuclear weapons, but to agree to a framework of intrusive inspection if it wants to be treated as a ‘normal’ state after it proves itself worthy. As indicated, this approach seems discriminatory and hypocritical in the extreme. It would be more to the point to acknowledge the relative reasonableness of Iran’s quest for a deterrent capability given the extent to which its security and sovereignty have threatened and encroached upon by the United States and Israel.

It is relevant to note that the Obama presidency, although opting for a diplomatic resolution of the dispute about its nuclear program, nevertheless repeatedly refuses to remove the military option from the negotiating table. Israel does little to hide its efforts to build support for a coercive approach that threatens a preemptive military strike. Such an unlawful imprudent approach is justified by Israel’s belief that Iran poses an emerging existential threat to its survival if it should acquire weapons of mass destruction. Israel bases this assessment on past statements by Iranian leaders that Israel should not or will not exist, but such inflammatory rhetoric has never been tied to any statement of intention to wage war against Israel. To assert an existential threat as a pretext for war is irresponsible and dangerous.

 

From Iran’s perspective acquiring a nuclear weapons capability would seem a reasonable response to its security situation. If deterrence is deemed a security necessity for the United States and Israel, given their military dominance in conventional weaponry, it should be even more so for Iran that is truly faced with a genuine, credible, and dangerous existential threat. Few countries would become safer and more secure if in possession of nuclear weapons but Iran is one state that likely would be. Again what is at stake most fundamentally is the challenge to the nuclear oligopoly that has been maintained since the early stages of the Cold War when the Soviet Union broke the American nuclear monopoly. More immediately threatened if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons at some future point is Israel’s regional nuclear weapons monopoly that serves both as a deterrent to others and helps clear political space for Israel’s expansionist moves in the region. I would not argue that Iran should acquire nuclear weapons, but rather that it has the strongest case among sovereign states to do so, and it is a surreal twist of realities to act as if Iran is the outlier or rogue state rather than the nuclear weapons states that refuse to honor their obligation set forth in Article VI of the NPT to seek nuclear disarmament in good faith at a time. The most urgent threat to the future in this period arises from the increasing risk that nuclear weapons will be used at some point to resolve an international conflict, and thus it should be a global policy imperative to demand efforts to achieve nuclear disarmament rather than use geopolitical leverage to sustain the existing hierarchy of states with respect to nuclear weaponry.

 

MILITARY THREATS

 

Israel’s military threats directed at Iran clearly violate the international law prohibition contained in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter that prohibit “threats or uses” of force except for self-defense against a prior armed attack or with an authorization by the Security Council. Despite this threat to international peace in an already turbulent Middle East, there is a widespread international acceptance of Israel’s behavior, and in fact, the most persuasive argument in favor of the sanctions regime is that it allays the concerns of the Israeli government and thus reduces the prospect of a unilateral military strike on Iran.

 

Conclusion

 

Overall, this opportunistic treatment of Iran’s nuclear program is less indicative of a commitment to nonproliferation than it is a shortsighted expression of geopolitical priorities. If peace and stability were the true motivations of the international community, then we would at least expect to hear strident calls for a nuclear free Middle East tied to a regional security framework. Until such a call is made, there is a cynical game being played with the complicity of the mainstream media. To expose this game we need to realize how greatly the three presuppositions discussed above misshape perceptions and discourse.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Netanyahu: The Day After (Revised)

4 Mar

Netanyahu: The Day After

 

My reaction to Netanyahu’s theatrical performance yesterday in Congress led me to recall that the deepest thinkers turned against democracy in ancient Greece because of the susceptibility of the Athenian citizenry to demagogic oratory from opportunistic politicians. Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides all became sensitive to the degree to which the rhetoric of demagogues contributed to the decline, and eventual downfall, of ancient Athens. They did this by convincing Athens to embark on superfluous and self-destructive war making.  Yet even in the worst last days of Athens the demagogues who performed so destructively were at least homegrown! It would have been inconceivable anywhere else than the United States for a controversial foreign leader to be welcomed before the legislative chamber with the express purpose of attacking the ongoing delicate diplomacy of the elected head of state on an issue of utmost importance for the peace and security of the world. It is not merely a matter of the niceties of governmental protocol as to whether the Speaker of the House was delinquent by not coordinating the invitation with the White House so as to agree on a date not so embarrassingly tied to Netanyahu’s bid for reelection on March 17, although even such issues are not trivial. More substantial, however, is what it tells us about this self-destructive embrace of a foreign leader that is unabashedly seeking to derail a critical foreign policy initiative clearly in the interest of the United States, the Middle East, and the world, and even Israel (although presumably not from Netanyahu’s and Likud’s inflamed and inflammatory worldview).

 

Such concerns about the vulnerabilities of democracy also underpinned the republican ethos of James Madison and other architects of the U.S. Constitution that explain why America’s founders opted for a republic rather than a democracy. They sought to rein in ‘the tyranny of the majority’ by a series of measures that willingly sacrificed efficiency for restraint. Such republican sentiments have been trashed in recent years, especially by Republicans who have been ironically particularly willing to give the President essentially unlimited discretion to wage war while foregoing the specifics of authorization and the requirements of a ‘declaration of war.’ In fairness, the Democrats are not without blame for this constitutional complacency, which is suggestive of the insidious effects of compulsive bipartisanship in recent American foreign policy, and no where more insidiously than in relation to Israel and a disastrous militarist approach to peace and security throughout the Middle East.

 

Stripped of its Baroque flourishes, what Netanyahu was telling Congress is that it should be sure to impose such unreasonably strict requirements on any future deal with respect to Iran’s nuclear program as to make any proposed arrangement non-negotiable. As it is, what Obama seems to be demanding of the Iranians is a set of assurances that extend far beyond what has been ever expected of any other non-nuclear state despite several others (including Germany and Japan) edging far closer to the nuclear weapons threshold than Iran. These impositions on Iran’s nuclear program include restrictions on enriching capabilities, removals of existing stockpiles of enriched uranium, and a program of periodic rigorous inspections, scheduled and unannounced.

There already exists an unreflective consensus in the United States that any effort by Iran to cross the nuclear threshold would provides ample justification for launching an aggressive war against Iran. The liberal center of the current American political debate, dominated by soft Zionist perspectives, seems mindless or clueless about why such a posture is so unjustified. It never makes mention of the litany of unlawful military threats made by the United States, and even more so by a nuclear armed Israel over the years, directed at Iran. Most commentators do not acknowledge that threatening a non-defensive military attack is as unlawful as is an actual use of force (the UN Charter uses the language of ‘threat or use of force,’ making no legal distinctions, and does so knowingly in light of the effects of such military threats on peaceful relations and on sovereign rights). This threat diplomacy has been reinforced by an array of provocative and unlawful covert interventions disregarding Iran’s rights as a sovereign state, including the assassination of nuclear scientists in Iran and cyber warfare waged against its nuclear program (in 2010 it became clear that the United States and Israel had jointly developed a computer worm known at Stuxnet that was being used to destroy Iranian centrifuge capabilities at their Natanz facility and maybe elsewhere). Against such a background, Iran’s willingness to negotiate in light of this background, not to mention its willingness to overlook Israel’s retention of a nuclear weapons monopoly in the region, can only be understood in relation to the hardship imposed on the country by the international sanctions regime established largely at the behest of Washington and Tel Aviv, as well as the drastic fall in world price of oil. Additionally, the leadership of the Iranian government seems inclined to establish more normal relations with the United States and the West after decades of confrontation.

 

Against this background, we can begin to appreciate how deeply irresponsible it was for Netanyahu to be given this Congressional platform from which to deliver his fear-mongering and war-provoking speech that quite obviously had one overriding purpose and effect—to defeat, and at least deeply complicate, the already complicated diplomacy of reaching an agreement with Iran acceptable to both sides. Its secondary motives, equally obviously, was to help Netanyahu win electoral approval in Israel and to show the American people that for the sake of Israel, they are far better off in the future with a Republican in the White House.

 

If this gloomy assessment is correct it will almost certainly lead in two main directions: giving the hardliners in Iran the upper hand, who have contended all along that an encounter with the West is inevitable and in accord with Islamic destiny. In effect, a collision course culminating in war would appear increasingly inevitable. And such a collision would have devastating effects in the region, including a substantial risk of a far wider regional war. It would also take a huge step in the direction of making the Huntington prophesy of ‘a clash of civilizations’ a tragic reality.

 

For a global state such as the United States, the pursuit of national interests is often destructive of the interests of others, but given that the alternative here of the adoption of the Netanyahu’s prescriptions, it should be a no brainer that the Obama approach is to be greatly preferred. As argued, even Obama is being far too deferential to Israel’s view of Iran, but at least it is far less destructive of national and human interests than where Netanyahu’s path leads. This is one situation in which ‘leading from behind’ (that is, following Israel) will not do. The world needs a responsible United States Government on the global stage, but this can only happen if the umbilical cord tying the country to Israel is cut, and this will only become feasible when many more of the American people awaken to their own interests and the betrayal of their most cherished values.

 

A final observation—we should not forget while this dark Netanyahu melodrama unfolds, the ordeal of the Palestinian people is completely ignored except by the Palestinians and by activist supporters around the world. Quite relevantly, the supposedly moderate Israeli opposition to Netanyahu has also kept mum about what they might do to bring about a just peace, apparently being either content with the status quo or fearing that any talk of making peace would alienate even anti-Netanyahu voters. In effect, one more cost of the Netanyahu visit is to preclude any mainstream attention being given to the intolerable realities so long endured by Palestinians living under occupation and in refugee camps.

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