Tag Archives: Iran

Moving Toward the Brink of War: Provoking Iran for What? For Whom?

30 Jun

Toward the Brink of War: Provoking Iran for What? For Whom?

 

 [Prefatory Note: The following interview with the Iranian journalist Javad Hieran-Nia was published in Iran together with Middle Scholar’s Statement on Trump’s Iran Policy. The links below on the Iranian publication in Mehr News and Tehran Times.

 

 

https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/437517/Impossible-to-predict-where-Trump-will-go-with-Iran-policy-Falk

https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/437548/Attack-on-Iran-would-be-an-unmitigated-disaster-for-all

https://en.mehrnews.com/news/146956/American-attack-on-Iran-would-be-an-unmitigated-disaster-for

 

What follows here is an English version of the interview, somewhat modified.]

 

Q 1: Do you think that the maximum pressure campaign on Iran will have the intended outcome sought by Trump?

We have learned that it is impossible to predict where Trump will go with Iran policy. Judging from relations with other leaders, he is likely to be more forthcoming if the foreign government and its leaders are receptive to his often enigmatic diplomatic initiatives, sometimes proposing out of the blue face to face meetings.

It is quite unlikely that this Trump diplomatic pattern will be followed in relation to Iran for several reasons. First of all, Trump has himself taken a number of unilateral provocative steps for which there was no justification, starting with the withdrawal from the Nuclear Program Agreement followed by the imposition of a harsh sanctions regime that unlawfully overreaches by seeking to coerce other countries to refrain from trading with Iran. Such punitive initiatives are flagrant instances of economic aggression in violation of international law and the UN Charter.

Secondly, Trump’s chief advisors seem determined to push the US Government over the brink by escalating tensions, threatening military action,  and demonizing Iran. Thirdly, U.S. military capabilities have been provocatively increased with the obvious bullying goal of posing a threat to and exerting pressure on Iran, or as anti-Iranian militants allege to deter Iranian moves against American regional interests. Fourthly, the anti-Iran policy has been pushed hard by Israel and Saudi Arabia, which exert excessive influence on American foreign policy in the Middle East.

At the same time Trump’s unpredictability could suggest that a more hopeful future. Trump has at time indicated his willingness to talk with Iranian leaders, backed down at the last minute a week ago at the dangerous verge of authorizing a military strike, and has seemed reluctant to initiate wars as distinct from his disposition to make threats and impose sanctions. We know that in 2016 Trump was highly critical of Democrats (and even Republicans) for regime-changing wars in the Middle East, especially Iraq and Libya, and may believe that a military confrontation with Iran would hurt his reelection prospects in 2020. The. American people seem opposed at this time to any kind of military undertaking that risks war with Iran.

Q2, It looks as though we are approaching closer to the American presidential election, Trump seems to be increasingly willing to talk with Iranian authorities. Some believe that this readiness to talk is more for electoral advertising than as an expression of a new foreign policy approach to Iran. What is your opinion?

As my prior response suggests, it is always difficult to grasp Trump’s political motivations accurately, and he is quite capable of thinking that peace talks with Iran will help his reelection plans one day and think the opposite on the very next day. His positions are adopted and abandoned in a manner that reflects his calculations of advantage at a particular moment in time.

Trump knows very little about the substantive issues relating to Iran. All he seems to know and rely upon is that his friends in Tel Aviv and Riyadh dislike Iran and that his nemesis, Obama, reached a normalizing relationship with Iran in 2015 that he has repudiated in one of his worst displays of irresponsible. statesmanship.

It is quite likely that if Trump thinks that if he could achieve a new agreement on Iran’s nuclear program then he could promote the outcome as hi personal diplomatic victory, and claim as a great achievement of his hardline approach that shows skeptics he knew what he was doing all along. Trump probably believes that such an outcome would bring him victory and a second term in the White House, and he could be right about this.except that it is close to inconceivable that his desired outcome will happen. The Iranian government, while seeking normalization with the West, including the U.S., show no sign that it willing to give any further ground with respect to its position on key questions pertaining to its nuclear program.

Q3.  If the maximum pressure against Iran does not reach the result, then what?  Would you imagine a change in Trump’s national security team, including the dismissal of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo by way of forced resignations?

As with the. earlier questions, we cannot confidently predict how Trump will handle high officials in his own government whom he thinks disagree or obstruct his policies. It seems that most often such officials soon resign or are fired, but not always. Yet if he claims victory with respect to his Iran policies, even if it seems to most observers as ‘a defeat’ he would probably praise Bolton and Pompeo for their contributions rather than complain about their performance.

We cannot know at this point whether the hard line advocated by Bolton and Pompeo is seeking results by exerting maximum pressure via threat diplomacy or is a prelude to war if Iran does not give in to the demands or retaliates in some way. The tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman can be understood either as a possible effort by the intelligence agencies and Bolton/Pompeo to trap Trump into authorizing a ‘decisive response’ or maybe just an effort to mobilize public opinion in the US and Europe to become more supportive of the current Washington approach based on belligerence and provocation. We do know that much evidence and objective assessments point to false flag operations in these tanker attacks, and if so, it suggests that whoever is responsible clearly intended to raise tensions and set the stage for a further escalation of the conflict.

 

 

  1. Given that Trump’s trade war with China will have unfavorable effects on the US economy in the coming months and the economy it could have an effect on the 2020. Presidential elections. Trump. What do you anticipate to be the outcome of the US elections in 2020 if the trade war with China. continues?

As far as we now know, the Trump trade policies are producing a trade war with China that will not end soon, but whether its negative effects will alter the 2020 national elections is highly uncertain at this time. As long as the American stock market remains high and the unemployment levels remain low it is not likely to be a major factor as compared to health, immigration, security, and most of all, a test of Trump’s degree of popularity with the American voting public.

There is a broad American consensus that China had been acting unfairly in international trade, which justified some efforts to resurface the playing field in relation to trade and intellectual property rights, but among economists there seems wide agreement that raising tariffs on Chinese imports are not an effective tool for reaching this goal. Tariffs are seen as counterproductive to the extent that they drag down the world economy, remind Americans of the Great Depression, and end up hurting the United States. As your question suggests over time a trade war will produce a downturn in the American economy that then drags has negative effects on the world economy, but I doubt that it will have much of an. Impact on the forthcoming presidential elections, which seem dominated by sharp disagreements on the domestic policy agenda.

  1. A poll of voter preferences was recently arranged by Fox News, the chief media sponsor of Trump, that shows that Trump has less voter support than five Democrats, including Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. Given the fact that the poll was held by Fox News, how do you evaluate such results? I recognize that there have been some differences between Trump and Fox News recently, which may make these resulting less important than they seem.

Fox News continues to be mainly supportive of Trump, and this presidential popularity poll may have been released to energize Trump support groups to work harder, warning of. a strong challenge from a candidate of the Democratic Party.

These early polls are not reliable. I do not expect that either Sanders or Biden to end up as the choice of the Democratic Party to oppose Trump in 2020. I believe Biden will be seen as too weak a candidate that would self-destruct if facing Trump, while Sanders is seen as too divisive, old, and narrow in his focus. What is true is that Trump remains an historically unpopular president, and is definitely vulnerable to defeat if the Democratic Party puts forward a candidate that unifies its moderate and progressive factions while offering progressive programs on the main domestic issues and proposing a more constructive foreign policy.

Such a Democratic candidate would certainly announce an intention to restore the Obama nuclear agreement with Iran and reinstitute the staged removal of sanctions in accord with the agreement, which would also achieve a restored consensus with Europe, Russia, China, and Germany. If such an eventuality occurs, Iran would be expected to renew its commitment as to an agreed level and quantity of enriched uranium and an acceptance of limits on the annual production of heavy water. Such a positive expectation would be reason enough for me to vote in favor of whomever the Democratic Party ends of nominating. I hope it will be Elizabeth Warren, but several others would be acceptable to me.

 

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AN AMERICAN ATTACK ON IRAN WOULD BE AN UNMITIGATED DISASTER FOR THE US, IRAN AND THE WORLD: Iran War Statement

25 Jun

[Prefatory Note: The following statement on US warmongering in relation to Iran was prepared by Mark LeVine, Professor of History, University of California, Irvine and myself. Some of the early signatories are among the leading scholars in the field of Middle East Studies. Their names are listed below.

It seeks to make two major arguments: first, that the unlawful threats and coercive moves made by the United States point toward a political disaster that would include the commission of the most serious of international crimes, that of aggression via threats and uses of force that do not constitute self-defense under international law; secondly, that it is essential to shift the relationship with Iran from one based on coercive to an approach resting on restorative diplomacy involving a deliberate reversal of American Foreign Policy with the overriding objective of normalization of relations between our two countries.

If you wish to add your name to the signatories of the statement, use the link below. As there  is no space for affiliation, I suggest putting your first and last name in the first blank space, and your affiliation in the space reserved for last name.]

https://secure.avaaz.org/en/community_petitions/President_Trump_An_American_Attack_on_Iran_Would_be_an_Unmitigated_Disaster_for_the_US_Iran_and_the_World/details/

 

 

 

AN AMERICAN ATTACK ON IRAN WOULD BE

AN UNMITIGATED DISASTER FOR THE US, IRAN AND THE WORLD

 

Statement by leading Middle East/Islamic studies scholars, June 22, 2019

We, the undersigned scholars of the Middle East and North Africa and broader Muslim world, call on President Trump immediately to pull back from the brink of a war with the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is clear to us that the human, diplomatic, legal, political, and economic costs to both countries, the Persian Gulf and larger Middle East, the global economy and the global system of international humanitarian law of a US attack would be even more devastating than was the US invasion of Iraq sixteen years ago. We call upon the political leadership of the country, with a sense of urgency, not only to refrain from any further threats and uses of force against Iran, but also to put forward a new American diplomacy that takes steps to achieve a sustainable peace between our two countries and within the larger region.

 

We bring to the public’s attention the following points:

 

– The US-led Iraqi invasion, whose financial toll has exceeded $2 trillion in the US and at least that much in its adverse economic impact on the affected countries, led to the deaths of over 600,000 Iraqis, largely destroyed the Iraqi state and much of the country’s infrastructure, produced devastating immediate and long-term impact on the health of Iraqis and the environment, directly contributed to the rise of the Islamic State and its conquest and occupation and destruction of a huge swath of Iraq and neighboring countries (especially Syria), and produced a series of governments in the region which, even when there is a veneer of democracy, are incredibly corrupt and unable effectively to govern fractured societies, while continuing routinely to commit large scale human rights violations against their citizens.

 

– Like the Iraqi invasion before it, an attack on Iran under the present circumstances would be a clear violation of international law–a crime against peace, which is an international crime of the highest order, and delineated as such in the Nuremberg Judgement. Indeed, absent a valid claim of self-defense any attack on Iran, never mind a full-scale invasion and occupation by the United States, would violate the core articles of the UN Charter (Articles 2(4), 33, 39 & 51) as well as the legal imperative to seek a peaceful settlement of all international disputes. Such “breaches of the peace” are the most serious violations of international law a country can commit, and the US doing so again less than a generation after the Iraqi invasion would situate it outside the community of nations, making it widely regarded as a dangerous and destabilizing rogue actor whose behavior is the very opposite of the self-understanding and justifications of the Trump Administration for its actions. In this regard the recent array of threats, sanctions, and provocations are themselves flagrant violations of international law even without any direct recourse to force; only self defense against a prior armed attack across as international border legally justifies a claim of self-defense. Absent this, all threats, as well as uses of force, are considered severe violations of international law.

 

Particularly in the context of the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which verifiably halted the potential for Iran to pursue a nuclear weapons program, and the imposition of crippling economic sanctions against the government and people of Iran without a UN Security Council mandate, the present policy of increasing pressure on Iran and irresponsibly raising risks violent confrontation that could quickly escalate to an all-out war, coupled with the inflammatory discourse of regime change championed by National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, constitute clear interference with Iranian sovereignty rights as well as with the inalienable right of self-determination enjoyed by the Iranian people. As such, these policies are violations of international law and of the UN Charter, inherently destabilizing, and themselves pose unacceptable threat to peace.

 

Recent events have alarmed us, demonstrating how ill-defined policy goals, bellicose rhetoric, policies and brinkmanship, and operating outside the well-defined framework of international law can easily bring countries to the brink of mutual disaster. The ongoing global impact of the Iraqi invasion (from the rise of ISIS to the aborted Arab Spring, greater support for authoritarian rulers, and the civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen and the massive wave of refugees these dynamics have caused) reminds us that the Middle East, and the world at large, cannot afford another major war in the region. Such a conflict would undoubtedly lead to a horrific toll of dead and injured, major environmental destruction, large scale forced migration, world-wide recession, as well as producing other equally dangerous and unintended consequences.

 

Finally, we note here that the Trump Administration’s bellicose policies towards Iran are inseparable from its uncritical and unrestrained support of authoritarian and repressive policies across the region, from the ever-deepening Israeli occupation to the Saudi and UAE war in Yemen, the destruction of democracy in Egypt and the frustration of democratic aspirations of citizens across the Middle East and North Africa, all of which contribute to the immiseration and increasingly forced migration of millions of people across the region and the unjustified repression of their legitimate aspirations for freedom, justice, democracy and sustainable development.

 

We therefore call upon President Trump, first, to pull back from any thought of an unsanctioned attack; second, to rejoin and implement the 2015 nuclear agreement; third, to terminate the enhanced sanctions he continues to impose on Iran; and fourth, to enter into immediate and good faith negotiations towards a normalization of relations with the Islamic Republic. Along with these immediate steps, we call for an honest appraisal of the costs of historic and current American policies in the Middle East and North Africa, and their reorientation towards support for freedom and democracy.

 

In the absence of these steps, we call on the US Congress to act swiftly and decisively to prevent the President from leading the United States into war, and call on our fellow academics, policymakers, diplomats, military officials, elected representatives, and concerned citizens to assert whatever pressure necessary to prevent the Administration from engaging in any kind of attack on Iran, or any other country, outside the bounds of international law and without the clear and explicit authorization of the UN Security Council.

 

Signed (partial list, as of June 21),

 

Beth Baron, Distinguished Professor, Director, Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center, Graduate Center, City University of New York, past President of the Middle East Studies Association

 

Joel Beinin, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History, Emeritus Stanford University, past President of the Middle East Studies Association

 

Laurie A. Brand, Robert Grandford Wright Professor of International Relations and Middle East Studies University of Southern California, past President of the Middle East Studies Association

 

Charles E. Butterworth, Emeritus Professor, Department of Government & Politics, University of Maryland

 

Juan R. Cole, Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, past President of Middle East Studies Association

 

John Esposito, University Professor, Professor of Religion & International Affairs and Islamic Studies, Georgetown University, past President of the Middle East Studies Association and American Academy of Religion

 

Richard Falk, Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University, former, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Territories

 

Nader Hashemi, Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies

 

Suad Joseph, Professor of Anthropology and Women and Gender Studies at the University of California, Davis, past President of the Middle East Studies Association

 

Mark LeVine, Professor of History, UC Irvine, Chair, Program in Global Middle East Studies

 

Zachary Lockman, Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, and History, past President of the Middle East Studies Association

 

Valentine M. Moghadam, Professor of Sociology and International Affairs, Northeastern University, past President of the Middle East Studies Association

 

Ahmad Sadri, Gorter Chair of Islamic World Studies, Professor of Sociology, Lake Forest College

 

Bolton’s Red Sky Worldview: ICC, International Law, and Iran

26 Sep

Bolton’s Game: Not Sovereignty, Not International Law—Clearing the Path for U.S., Geopolitical Primacy

 

To be sure, on September 10thJohn Bolton, Trump’s National Security Advisor, pushed all the thematic buttons that might beexpected of a luncheon speaker invitedto address the Federalist Society, long known asthe ideological home of rabid advocates of the so-called ‘new sovereignty.’ The hallmark of this pre-Trump neocon law bastion of Scalia worshippers was their role in the career nurturing of such jurisprudential embarrassments as John Yoo and Jack Goldsmith. Yoo the notorious author of the torture memos and Goldsmith the public servant usually give credit forcrafting an expert approval text validating ‘extreme rendition’ of CIA suspects to notorious ‘black sites,’ known around the world as safe havens for torture, surely acrude instance ofex parte criminal legalism. It should be noted that both of these individuals are senior faculty members at two of America’s finest law schools, UC Berkeley and Harvard, both of which exhibit institutional pride in the fact of treating legal ethics as integral part of professional education.

 

John Bolton was the safest of choices as a featured speaker, having earned his Federalist Society credentials many times over.  He seems perversely proud of leading the unprecedented effort on behalf of George W. Bush in 2002 to ‘unsign’ the Rome Statute, the treaty that brought the International Criminal Court (ICC) into force in 2002, and now has 123 sovereignstates as parties, including all NATO members except the U.S. and Turkey. At the talk, Bolton paused to boast of orchestrating this unusual move to highlight and underscore this repudiation of the ICC by the Bush presidency, and in the process, of the crusading success of a transnational civil society movement and a coalition of moderate governments around the world to institutionalize individual accountability of political leaders and military commanders for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  It should be humiliating that such a global undertaking to strengthen international criminal law enforcement is regarded as posing a direct threat to Americans and governmental policy. It puts a preemptivetwist on the previous reliance on ‘victors’ justice’ to ensure that none of the Allied crimes during World War II would be subjected to legal scrutiny while the crimes of German and Japanese political leaders and military commanders were being prosecuted.

 

Actually, even if Bush had not bothered to have the Clinton signature removed, the U.S. would never in this dark period of anti-internationalism have joined the ICC. To become a party to the treaty would have needed the additional step of ratification of the Rome Statute, and that would require an affirmative vote of 2/3rds of the U.S. Senate. A favorable outcome would have been even more unlikely than for Donald Trump to nominate Anita Hill or Robert Mueller as his next choices for the U.S. Supreme Court. In this sense, only the up tempo language of Bolton is notable for its willingness to denigrate and even smear the ICC.

 

Slick Willy Clinton had his own reservations about the treaty and never took the normal step following an official signature of a negotiated inter-governmental agreement of submitting it for ratification. Indeed, it is a technical violation of customary international law that imposes a good faith obligation on governments to seek formal adherence of signed treaties in accordance with constitutional procedures of the particular state. In other words, even the supposedly liberal side of American political life has opted out of its earlier tradition of supporting the institutional development of the Rule of Law on a global level as an aspect of its commitment to the role of law and institutions as essential ingredients of a peaceful and just world order.

 

Congress removed any doubt as to its hostility toward the ICC when in 2002 it passed the American Service-Members’ Protection Act, authorizing the President to use all necessary means, even force, to prevent prosecution at The Hague of Americans accused of war crimes or crimes against humanity. What is especially disturbing about such a slap at criminal accountability is the absence of slightest show of concern as to whether the allegations in a particular case were well grounded in evidence or not.  When Bolton alluded to this bit of ultra-nationalism he appropriately noted that the legislation enjoyed bipartisan support, which suggests that the American posture of claiming ‘lawless geopolitics’ for itself is a fixed feature of world order for the seeable future no matter who occupies the Oval Office. It is ironic that while criminality is ensured of impunity, the practice of impunity, a dubious encroachment on the logic of legality, is not only claimed but offered that most unusual feature of international enforcement.

 

Bolton implied that the problems of criminality in world affairs are associated with the leaders of the foreign adversaries of the United States, identifying such individuals as Saddam Hussein, Hitler, Stalin, and Qaddafi. His assertion implied that the good behavior of the United States and its allies was such as to be inherently benevolent and the bad behavior of its adversaries would require more than law to deter: “The hard men of history are not deterred by fantasies of international law such as the International Criminal Court.” We can only meekly ask, “Are the supposedly soft men  of history, such as Trump or G.W. Bush, any less undeterred?” “And why should we ever expect these hard men to be deterred if the ICC and international law are but ‘fantasies.’

 

Getting back to Bolton’s luncheon remarks, his own summary of his feverish assault on the audacity of the ICC to consider investigating Israel’s international crimes, and the alleged crimes of the Taliban and the United States in Afghanistan reads as follows:This administration will fight back to protect American constitutionalism, our sovereignty, and our citizens. No committee of foreign nations will tell us how to govern ourselves and defend our freedom. We will stand up for the US constitution abroad, just as we do at home. And, as always, in every decision we make, we will put the interests of the American people first.

 

These are predictable sentiments, given the occasion and taking into account Bolton’s long advocacy of a militarist foreign policy that disregards the restraints of law, morality, and political prudence. It isthe ethics and politics of this disregard that is Bolton’s realmessage. We should be attentive to this real message hidden within the fiery ‘sovereignty, first’ verbiage, which is that the geopolitical practices of the United States will not be subject to legal accountability no matter how flagrant the violation of fundamental norms might be in the future. Bolton may overstep the bounds of the liberal order when he attacks the ICC as an institution, which had not been previously treated as a threat to American foreign policy. Only recently did it dawn on Washington policymakers that the ICC might at some point actually challenge what the U.S. and its allies, most notably Israel, are doing in the world.

 

Previously, the U.S. was a supporter of criminal accountability of foreign leaders, especially if they were adversaries of the U.S.. It should be remembered that even during the Bush presidency, the government sent dozens of government lawyers to Iraq to help prepare a war crimes prosecution of Saddam Hussein and his entourage after their capture. This capture occurred in the course of a war of aggression initiated against Iraq in 2003 without any prior provocation. The U.S. attack, regime change, and long intrusive occupation took place, it should be recalled, despite the failure of the U.S. Government to secure the support of the UN Security Council despite a feverish attempt to gain authorization.

 

In other words, so far as even the Boltons of this world are concerned, there is nothing wrong with criminal accountability of leaders and military personnel so long as the indictments, prosecutions, and punishments are confined to enemies of the United States. Such a self-serving geopolitical appropriation of international criminal law should not be confused with legitimate law, which presupposes that the rules, norms, and procedures apply to all relevant actors, the strong as well as the weak, the victors as well as the defeated, geopolitical wrongdoers as well their adversaries.

 

What is sad about the Bolton worldview, and indeed the new sovereignty ideologues that shape the public image of the Federalist Society, aside from its influence in the Trump Era, is that it completely misunderstands the relevance of international law in this period of global interdependence and planetary challenge. State-centric world order as beset by geopolitical rivalries is a blueprint for civilizational collapse in the 21stcentury, and probably represents the worst possible way to uphold core sovereign rights and national interests over time.

 

What is still sadder is that the Bolton/Trump worldview, which seems so outlandish and anachronistic is not that extremist, compared to Democratic establishment approaches, when it comes to behavior. It represents a surreal rhetorical extension of the bipartisan consensus that is complacent about the failures of the neoliberal international order, including especially the destructive impacts of predatory globalization on democratic forms of governance, on safeguarding of social and economic rights, and on ecological sustainability.

 

As many have noted Hilary Clinton’s push toward a confrontation with Russia was more in keeping with Bolton’s preferred foreign policy than the more accommodationist proposals of Trump during his presidential campaign. It is against such a background that I reach the lamentable conclusion that when it comes world peace and global justice the Democratic Party establishment has little to offer when it comes to foreign policy, and may be more inclined to initiate wars and raise geopolitical tensions than even their reactionary and militarist Republican rivals. Bernie Sanders, although international affairs is not his strong suit, at least gestured toward a less militarist and dysfunctional  foreign policy. For the Democratic Party to generate enthusiasm upon American youth and the deeply discontented in the country it must reinvent itself by embracing progressive and forthcoming policies than in the recent past and positions that are more constructive and programmatic than even the Sanders foreign policy. Without such bold moves there will be a loud sigh of relief when Trump loses control of Congress in November, and even louder one when Trump leaves the White House, but the American ship of state will still resemble the maiden voyage of the Titantic.

 

As if to confirm the analysis above we should take account of Bolton past warmongering toward North Korea including advocating a preemptive strike, and recently articulating grossly unlawful threats of force directed at Iran. It should be appreciated that contemporary international law, as embodied in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter forbids threatsas well as uses of aggressive force.

Such a prohibition underlines the criminality of Bolton’s recent formulations of military threats directed at Iran: “I might imagine they [“the mullahs of Tehran”] would take me seriously when I assure them today: If you cross us, our allies, or our partners; if you harm our citizens; if you continue to lie, cheat and deceive, yes, there will indeed be hell to pay.” Such chilling words must be understood in the context of Bolton’s past advocacy of bombing Iran and of the Trump approach to the region that can be summarized in a few words: ‘do what Netanyahu wants.’

 

Even if war and aggression do not actually occur, and we must pray that they do not, this kind of geopolitical bullying by a leading official of a country that has up to one thousand military bases spread around the world should be criminalized, and not just criticized as intemperate.

 

 

Interview: Middle East Turmoil: Israeli Massacre, Palestinian Grievances

3 Apr

The Middle East is Heating Up — Again: An Interview with Richard Falk (with C.J. Polychroniou)

 

[Prefatory Note: This is a somewhat modified text of an interview of two weeks ago conducted by the Greek journalist and author, C.J Polychroniou. Since then several developments have occurred, none more significant than the Return Home Land Day demonstrations of March 30, 2018. The original interview appeared in several online publications. The format is altered to make somewhat more reader friendly.]

 

CJP: Richard, let’s start with Donald Trump’s decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the US embassy there by May of this year. First, is this legal from the standpoint of international law, and, second, what are likely to be the long-term effects of the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on the region as a whole?

 

RF: There is no question, Chronis, that Trump’s Jerusalem policy relating to recognition and the move of the American embassy is regionally and religiously provocative and disruptive, underscoring the abandonment by Washington of even the pretense of being a trustworthy intermediary that can be relied upon by both sides to work for a sustainable peace between the two peoples. Some critics of the initiative are saying that the U.S. is free to situate its embassy in Jerusalem, but the whole of Jerusalem isn’t Israel. The status of this holy city remains to be determined and East Jerusalem, where the Old City is located, which for the present is considered to be an ‘occupied territory’ in international humanitarian law.

 

Recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is a clear violation of international humanitarian law, which rests on the central proposition that an occupied territory should not be altered in any way that changes its status and character without the consent of the occupied society. It also is a unilateral rejection of a near unanimous international consensus, endorsed by the United Nations, that the future of Jerusalem should be settled by negotiations between the parties as a part of a broader peacemaking process. Israel had much earlier violated both international law and breached this international consensus by unilaterally annexing an enlarged Jerusalem, and declared that the whole city, within expanded boundaries, would be the ‘undivided, eternal capital’ of Israel. It is notable that the General Assembly on December 21, 2017 approved by an overwhelming majority of 128-8 (35 abstentions) a strong condemnation of the U.S. move on Jerusalem, with even America’s closest allies joining in this vote of censure.

 

It is difficult to predict the long-term consequences of this diplomatic rupture. It depends, above all, on whether the U.S. Government acts convincily to restore its claim to act as a conflict-resolving intermediary. The Trump administration continues to insist that it is working on a peace plan that will require painful compromises by both Palestine and Israel. Of course, given the unconditional alignment of Washington with Netanyahu’s views of Israel and the Palestinian future, as well as the orientation of those entrusted with drafting the plan, it is highly unlikely that even Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, generally accommodationist will be inclined to enter a diplomatic process that is virtually certain to be weighted so heavily in favor of Israel. Yet as many have come to appreciate, nothing is harder to predict than the future of Middle Eastern politics.

At the same time, Jerusalem has an abiding significance for both Islam and Christianity that makes it almost certain for the indefinite future that there will be formidable regional and civilizational resistance to subsuming Jerusalem under Israeli sovereign control.

 

******************

 

CJP: Israel appears bent on restricting Iran’s rising influence as a regional power in the Middle East. How far do you think the US can go in assisting Israel to contain Tehran’s strategy for empowering Shia’s?

 

Richard Falk: Israel and Saudi Arabia are both for different reasons determined to confront Iran, and quite possibly, initiate a military encounter with potentially widespread ramifications for the entire region, if not the world. A quick glance at the Syrian conflict suggests how complex and dangerous is this effort to destabilize the Iranian governing process, with the dual objectives of destabilizing the governing process mixed with the more ambitious goal of causing civil strife of sufficient magnitude as to produce a civil war, and ideally from the perspectives of Iran’s adversaries, regime change.

 

The Israeli adherence to this recklessness seems partly motivated by its overall security policy of seeking to weaken any country in the region that is hostile to its presence and has the potential military capability to threaten Israeli security and regional role in a serious manner. Israel has been so far successful in neutralizing each of its credible adversaries in the region (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, Syria) with the exception of Iran. In this sense, Iran stands out as the last large unfinished item on Israel’s post-1967 geopolitical agenda. Israel’s real intentions are difficult to pin down, shifting with context and perceived opportunity. Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders frequently manipulate the alleged Iranian threat to cause fear among Israelis. Their goal seems to be the mobilization of domestic support for adhering to an aggressive foreign policy. This manipulation panics many Israeli security specialists who express are more alert to the risks of an actual military confrontation with Iran than are political leaders.

 

Saudi motivations are quite different, associated with a fierce regional rivalry that is articulated in terms of a sectarian clash between Shia and Sunni Islam, aggravated by a concern that Iran’s influence increased as a result of the Iraq and Syrian Wars, which both seem to have outcomes favorable to Tehran. The sectarian rationale of the conflict seems intended to disguise the more fundamental explanation, which is that there is a power struggle between these two sovereign states to determine which one will achieve regional ascendancy. The sectarian explanation was also somewhat undermined by the intensity with which the Saudis and other Gulf monarchies used their financial and diplomatic resources to crush the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt despite its strong Sunni identity. From the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 Tehran looked upon the monarchy governing Saudi Arabia as corrupt and decadent in the same manner as it regarded the Shah’s dynastic rule in Iran as politically illegitimate.

 

Your focus on how far the U.S. can go in restricting Iran’s influence is difficult to assess at this point. Trump’s virtual repudiation of the agreement on Iran’s Nuclear Program seems to express a commitment to join with Israel and Saudi Arabia to engage in coercive diplomacy, consisting of intensifying sanctions, covert operations to encourage internal opposition, and a variety of military threats. Where this will lead, if indeed it goes forward in defiance of the other parties to the agreement and almost all UN members, is anybody’s guess, but it is a highly irresponsible diplomatic gambit that risks a deadly ‘war of choice.’

 

Trump’s regional diplomacy, such as it is, has been most notable for giving even greater emphasis to the ‘special relationships’ with Israel and Saudi Arabia than earlier American leaders. Even previously, under Obama, George W. Bush, and prior presidents, the subordination of American strategic interests and national values to this posture of unquestioning support, which is the operational significance of designating these links as special relationships.

 

 

 

CJP: Syria’s civil war not only continues unabated but the country has become a battlefield for the spread of the influence of various powers in the region, including Turkey and Russia. Do you see a way out of this mess?

 

Richard Falk: The Syrian War is among the most complex conflict patterns in the history of warfare. Not only is there an internal struggle for control of the Syrian state that has been waged by not one, but by several insurgent movements that are not even compatible with one another. There is also a regional proxy war pitting Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar against Iran, with Turkey playing a confusing role that sometimes seems guided by anti-Damascus goals but at other times is preoccupied with curtailing the Kurdish challenge. The various national struggles of the Kurds for autonomous rights, possibly independent political communities, threatens the territorial integrity of several Middle Eastern states, as well as Syria. In addition to all of this there are major multi-faceted and fluid Russian and American involvements on opposite sides, although not even this opposition is clear cut and consistent. For a time there was an almost collaborative effort to defeat ISIS and obtain a Syrian ceasefire, although the basic involvement has been to put Russia on the side of the Damascus government and the U.S. as aligned with the insurgencies.

 

Because the anti-ISIS dimension of the conflict is at odds with the anti-Damascus dimension, depending on the priority accorded to one rather than the other, alignments are contradictory and shifted over time. Sometimes precedence has been given to achieving regime-change in Damascus by removing Assad from power, and in such contexts, it was acknowledged silently that ISIS was the most effective military challenge on the ground being mounted against the Syrian government. At other times, the counterterrorist campaign against ISIS was given uppermost prominence, and there was even high-level indications that Washington was willing to live with the Assad regime, a position given added credence recently due to the success of the Syrian government in quelling its opposition, making continued opposition futile politically and irresponsible ethically. Whenever pragmatism gained the upper hand, Russia and Iran were accepted as partners in these efforts to defeat and destroy ISIS.

 

All wars eventually come to an end, and I am sure Syria will not be an exception. Yet it difficult at present to project a solution that brings about more than a ceasefire, and even this kind of ending of what has become an orgy of senseless killing is highly elusive, as each of the many parties to the conflict jockeys violently for minor positional advantages to improve its bargaining leverage when the conflict enters some kind of negotiating phase. Although all wars end eventually, internal wars of this kind, especially with such complex regional and international aspects, can simmer for decades with no clear winner or loser as has been the case in the Philippines and Colombia. It seems as if at present the Syrian government believes it is on the verge of victory, and is pressing for an outcome in East Ghouta and Idlib such that it will not be expected to make significant concessions.

 

The best hope, which has been the case for several years, is that the various parties will recognize that the situation is indeed a mess that is causing mass suffering and widespread devastation without producing political gains. Yet translating that recognition into a formula that produces an end to the violence has so far proved futile and frustrating as each party sees the conflict from its partisan perspective of gain and loss.

 

 CJP: With the two-state solution having ceased long ago being a viable alternative, what are the most likely prospects for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations?

 

Richard Falk: The safest response is to anticipate a persistence of the present status quo, which involves continuing Israeli expansionism by way of the settlements and the persistence of the Palestinian ordeal, with some resistance in the occupied West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem and a growing global solidarity movement exerting pressure on Israel in the form of the BDS campaign. There may be some attention given to a variety of proposals to end the conflict by revived diplomacy. The Trump blustery promise of ‘a deal of the century’ has received skeptical attention, but its likely one-sidedness makes it almost certain to be a non-starter, especially as the Israeli government feels insufficient pressure to produce a peaceful solution based on a genuine political compromise and the Palestinian Authority remains unwilling to accept a demilitarized statelet as a token Palestine state, or even to participate in negotiations that are so obviously stacked against it. For public relations reasons, the international consensus clings to the two-state solution even though, as your question suggests, its viability has long been superseded by Israeli expansionist policies intended to fulfill the Zionist goal of making the boundaries of Israel coterminous with the whole of the Jewish biblical conception of the ‘promised land.’

 

There are other outcomes that are possible. Daniel Pipes has been promoting what he dubbed ‘the victory caucus,’ which posits Israel as the victor in the struggle to establish a Jewish state and Palestine the loser. Pipes argues that diplomacy has failed to resolve the conflict after years of effort, and hence that the only alternative is for one side to win and the other to lose if peace is to be established. He encourages Israel to escalate pressure on the Palestinians to make them see the light, accept the reality of a Jewish state, and move on. Such an initiative is distasteful to those who support the Palestinian struggle, and it seems oblivious to the claims of international law and international morality as these are generally understood in the 21st century when colonialism and ethnic nationalism are illegitimate forms of political control and the right of self-determination has become universally accepted as an inalienable right of an oppressed people in the circumstances of the Palestinians.

 

In my view, neither the two-state nor a consensual one-state outcome of the struggle is currently within the realm of political feasibility. We are necessarily speculating about future political scenarios within the domain of ‘political impossibility.’ Yet the impossible sometimes happens. Colonialism was successfully challenged, the Soviet Union collapsed, South Africa renounced apartheid, the Arab Spring erupted. In none of these cases did such occurrences seem possible except in retrospect. After the events, as expected, experts appeared who explained why these impossible developments were, if closely considered, inevitable.

 

In this spirit, I think it useful to acknowledge the limits of rational assessment, and either remain silent, or offer for consideration, a solution that is ‘impossible,’ yet ‘desirable’ from the perspective of humane values, which in this case involves a secure, equitable, and sustainable peace for both peoples that is, above all, sensitive to their equality and to their distinct, yet legitimate, claims to self-determination. I find it unimaginable to realize such a peace within the current structure of the Middle East, which consists of a group of artificial and autocratic states held together by varying mixtures of coercion, corruption, and external military assistance. Israel/Palestine peace cannot unfold in a benevolent manner without a structural return to the Ottoman framework of regional unity and ethnic community, and possibly Islamic caliphate, adapted to post-colonial realities. Such a stateless Middle East would reverse the harm inflicted on the region by the imposition of European territorial states through the infamous Sykes-Picot diplomacy.

 

 CJP: South Africa’s former apartheid system has been employed analytically by many to describe the current status of the state of Israel with regard to it’s treatment towards Palestinians. Indeed, it is from such a comparison that the Boycott, Divestment and Sactions (BDS) movement was borne, but to what extent are the two cases compatible? South Africa was pretty much isolated by the early 1980s, but the same cannot be said about Israel today. In fact, Israel has even managed to expand recently it’s network of allies with Greece and the Sunni states. So, what are your thoughts on the comparison between the former South African apartheid regime and Israel and the effectiveness of the strategy of BDS?

 

RF: Your question raises two distinct issues: Is Israel responsibly regarded as an ‘apartheid state’? If so, is Israeli apartheid similar to South African apartheid?

 

Prior to responding to these questions, it seems helpful to clarify the status of the international crime of apartheid as it has evolved in international law, taking particular note of the fact that although the name and core idea is based on the specific condemnation of South African racism, the international crime is detached from this precedent. The essence of the international crime is any form of discriminatory domination by one race over another that relies on ‘inhuman acts’ to sustain its purposes. In this important sense, Israeli forms of domination over the Palestinian people may be quite different than the domination of whites over blacks in South Africa and yet constitute the international crime of apartheid. Treating apartheid as an international crime is based both on the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid and on the 2002 Rome Statute governing the operations of the International Criminal Court that categorizes ‘apartheid’ in Article 7 as one of eleven types of Crime Against Humanity.

 

In a study commissioned by the UN Economic and Social Commission, Virginia Tilley and I concluded that the policies and practices of Israel toward the Palestinian people as a whole satisfy the requirements of the international crime of apartheid. Our conclusion is based on the view that Israel, to maintain an expanding Jewish state has subjected the Palestinian people to structures of subjugation and victimization that are sustained by excessive violence and other inhuman means. It was our judgment that Jews and Palestinians are distinct ‘races’ as the term is understood in international law. The scope of Israeli apartheid is based on coherent strategies designed to subjugate the Palestinian people whether they are living under occupation, the most obvious case, or as a discriminated minority within Israel or as residents in refugee camps in neighboring countries or living is a global diaspora as involuntary exiles. Each of these domains is connected with the Israeli efforts to ensure not only the prevalence of a Jewish state, but also a secure Jewish majority population that could only be achieved by a process of dispossession, dispersion, and fragmentation, as well as by the denial of any right of return.

 

South African apartheid was very different in its operation as compared to Israeli apartheid. For one thing, white South Africa was a minority demographic in the country and critically dependent on black labor. For another, the South African concept of law, citizenship, and democracy was delineated along racial lines, while Israel claims to be an inclusive democracy, although is more accurately understood to be an ethnocracy. Despite these fundamental differences, the core reality of ‘inhuman acts’ and ‘discriminatory structures of domination’ are present, although distinctly enacted, in both national settings.

 

Finally, it should be understood that such allegations of Israeli apartheid are made on the basis of academic study, and while they may be persuasive morally and politically, it is also true that until a valid tribunal passes judgment on such allegations, the legal status of the allegations remains unresolved, and is of course feverishly contested by Israel and its supporters.

 

CJP: Overall, what are the prospects for restored stability and a positive future for the countries in the Middle East?

 

RF: Without the intervention of unanticipated developments, the prospects are poor. On one level, the extreme turmoil in countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and neighboring Libya are likely to continue and could spread to additional states. On a second level, the regional rivalries between Iran and a Saudi led coalition on the one side and Israel on the other, seem likely to intensify. On a third level, there is no plausible scenario for establishing a sustainable peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. On a fourth level, with the reassertion of Russian engagement and the U.S. pursuit of a strategic agenda related to Israel, oil, political Islam, Iran, and nuclear nonproliferation, the region has as in the Cold War become a site of dangerous geopolitical maneuver and confrontation. On a fifth level, perhaps less serious than the others, is the sort of intra-regional tensions that have given rise to the Gulf Crisis centered upon the relations of Qatar to other Gulf countries, and to the role of Turkey as partner and antagonist, especially in relation to the continuing search of the Kurdish peoples for self-determination. Finally, on a sixth level, there is almost certain to be new expressions of internal strife and various extremisms that strike against the West, inviting retaliation, which will probably be accompanied by further migratory flows that aggravate relations between the Middle East and Europe.

 

The drastic and prolonged victimization of the Middle East also exhibits the failure of the West to understand, much less address, the root causes of conflict and chaos that have produced mass suffering and material deprivations throughout the region. These root causes can be traced back at least a century to the imposition of European style states on the region, reflecting colonial ambitions, in the aftermath of World War I and by way of a colonial pledge to the world Zionist movement to support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, then inhabited by a Jewish minority not larger than 6%. The other principal root cause related to the abundance of oil in several parts of the Middle East, which created rentier mentalities in development contexts and provided strong strategic motivations for intervention and control by global political actors.

 

In the end, this complexity joining the historical past to the tormented past creates a dismal set of prospects for the future of the Middle East. At this point, only paradoxical, although unrealistic, hopes for prudence and moderation can make the portrayal of the situation less gloomy than the evidence and trajectory suggest.

 

**********************************************************************************

 

After the Interview: A Postscript on the Land Day Massacre (‘Great March of Return’)

 

The precise statistics remain inconclusive, although there exists general agreement that more than 15 Palestinians were killed by live ammunition fired by Israeli snipers stationed at the border with Gaza, another estimated 750 Palestinians were injured by ammo and rubber bullets resulting in an estimated total of 1,500 injuries, including from tear gas dropped on the largely unarmed demonstration. Whether the Israeli behavior should be viewed as ‘excessive force’ or ‘collective punishment,’ or both, is a matter for debate, but there is no question that the killings and firepower were in direct conflict with Israel’s obligations as an Occupying Power as specified in the Fourth Geneva Convention. Israel’s ‘disengagement’ in 2005 did not end the occupation from the perspective of international humanitarian law, but rather rearranged its management, with control and deployments being concentrated on the borders rather than throughout Gaza, and reinforced by periodic massive military incursions causing large numbers of civilian casualties and widespread devastation.

 

This latest interaction returned the Palestinian litany of grievances to the front pages of the world’s media often accompanied by gruesome pictures, but also revealed two kinds of gaps: between the Western and non-Western media and between the mainstream media response and that of civil society. The mainstream media worries that this is a public relations setback for Israel and urges restraint on both sides. In contrast, the activist segment of civil society condemns the Israeli tactics as constituting a massacre, and calls for an arms embargo. This distinction at the level of response is revealing, with the mainstream and almost every Western government pinning their public hopes on reviving negotiations aiming at a political solution based on the establishment of a sovereign and independent Palestine. Engaged civil society has lost all faith in diplomacy under current conditions, believes only escalating nonviolent pressure can change the political climate sufficiently to make negotiations sufficiently promising to undertake, and then only if the two-state mantra is abandoned once and for all.

 

 

 

 

Remembering Ebrahim Yazdi

13 Sep

[Prefatory Note: I am republishing in modified form a short tribute to the memory of Ebrahim Yazdi. My original text, including its Arab translation, can be found at this link– http://tarikhirani.ir/fa/files/112/bodyView/1098 I had the privilege of knowing Dr. Yazdi, a pharmologist living in Houston until the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79, for the last 35 years of his life. A close associate of Ayatollah Khomeini, Dr. Yazdi became Foreign Minister in the Interim Government established immediately after the revolution succeeded, but resigned following the seizure of the American Embassy in November 1979, the point at which the Iranian revolution was dramatically radicalized and theocratized. For the remainder of his life, although remaining a devout Muslim, Dr. Yazdi struggled on behalf of constitutional democracy within the frame of the Islamic Republic of Iran. For these activities he was eventally sentenced to eight years in prison, and released a few years ago for health reasons.

 

More importantly, as my essay tries to highlight, Dr. Yazdi believed that despite the formal theocratic trappings, the democratic spirit continued to flourish among the Iranian people, and was indeed gradually transforming the Iranian state from within and below. Such a perception is especially important as this positive development has been put at serious risk by the Netanyahu, Salmon, Trump confrontational and warmongering diplomacy that strengthens the hand of hardliners within Iran and correspondingly weakens the positions of those continuing Dr. Yazdi’s brave struggle for a pluralist, tolerant, and progressive future with normalized relations with neighbors and the world.]

 

 

Remembering Ebrahim Yazdi

For all those dedicated to the attainment of real democracy, the name and life of Ebrahim Yazdi is a precious legacy worth reflecting upon because it has so much to teach us today. Among those who struggled for an Iranian future that was Islamic, genuinely democratic, and humanly decent no one was more steadfast and clear about their commitment than Dr. Yazdi. He participated in the revolution that overthrew the Shah long before its victory was achieved, and yet he vigorously opposed the radicalizing tendencies that led to the take over of the Iranian governing process at the time of the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979.

 

I first met Dr. Yazdi in the middle of 1978 when he led a group of student activists at an event organized at Princeton University where I was a faculty member. It was my first encounter with the religious wing of the overseas movement opposed to the Shah. I had been previously supportive of those opposing the American interference in the internal affairs of Iran, a reality that existed ever since 1953 when the CIA played such a major role in the overthrow of the elected government of Mohammad Mosaddeq. Until meeting with Dr. Yazdi I had not adequately appreciated the role of Ayatollah Khomeini as the real leader of this extraordinary nonviolent revolution unfolding in Iran that seemed to be growing stronger each day.

 

Some months later I had the opportunity to meet Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris, and was impressed at the time by his seeming commitment to resume a religious life and let post-Shah Iran be run in Tehran by political figures dedicated to establishing a humane relationship between the Iranian state and its people. I was struck by the degree to which the moderate views of Dr. Yazdi seemed also to inform the outlook of Ayatollah Khomeini, as well as Mehdi Bazargan, who had been my host during a political visit to in the midst of the climactic phase of the revolution in Iran and just prior to the meeting in Paris.

Dr. Yazdi was an early supporter of Khomeini’s leadership and encouraged a post-Shah governing process that would be guided by a strong constitution and led by officials selected by the people in fully free elections. However, this moderate vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran was opposed all along by various hardline elements in the Khomeini entourage, while this spiritual leader’s attitude seemed unformed when it came to the post-revolutionary governing process. The views of Dr. Yazdi seemed to win out at first as reflected by the character of the Interim Government, but gradually lost out, being decisively rejected after the embassy seizure that led to Dr, Yazdi’s resignation as Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of the Interim Government that had been earlier appointed by Khomeini to run the country immediately after the revolutionary victory and until elections could be organized.

 

No one has yet clarified whether Dr. Yazdi was correct in thinking that Khomeini was undecided as to how post-Shah Iran should be governed until around the time of the hostage seizure, which had been provoked by the Shah’s admission to the U.S. supposedly for medical treatment, although others suspected Washington’s counterrevolutionary intentions. Reading his lectures on the governance of an Islamic republic gave one sense, his early tendency to surround himself with secular liberal political figures in Europe and America created a different impression. I had several intelligent friends who were strong supporters of Khomeini’s leadership at first who became disenchanted later on, and chose exile or endured imprisonment and severe alienation. Dr. Yazdi never chose the path of disenchantment and alienation.

 

Rather than withdraw from the political arena after removing himself from a position of governmental authority, Dr. Yazdi entered the opposition, forming a political party, the Freedom Movement of Iran, which was dedicated to the democratizing of Iran by legal means. He even sought the presidency as the party’s candidate in 2005. It is a tribute to Dr. Yazdi’s courage and perseverance that he never lost faith in this democratizing mission, and believed that despite all the adverse Western criticisms of the Iranian government, the people of Iran were increasingly learning, and even practicing, the true virtues of democracy, and more significantly, that this pattern of practice was slowly but surely transforming the reality of the Islamic Republic of Iran in desirable directions.

 

It is this faith in the Iranian people and the related conviction that democracy, if it is to take root, must be grown and nurtured from within a country and in harmony with its distinctive political culture that is the core belief of Dr. Yazdi. As such, Dr. Yazdi’s view clashed with America’s ‘international liberalism’ that acted as if democracy could be imposed from without, a position that reached its disastrous climax by the attack on and occupation of Iraq after 2003, an intervention partially justified under the banner of ‘democracy promotion.’

 

Dr. Yazdi was sentenced to prison by a military court during the Shah’s rule for anti-government activity and then imprisoned in Iran under similar charges, being released only after an international campaign appealed to Iranian authorities on grounds of health. The legacy that Dr. Yazdi leaves behind is the profound political message that not only can an Islamic orientation toward governance be combined with democratic pluralism, tolerance, constitutionalism and a receptivity to all that modernity has to offer, but that is must be so combined if humane governance is to be achieved for Iran and other countries seeking to embed the best of their political culture and religious traditions in their political institutions.

 

A crucial part of this message, which few have so far grasped in the West, is that this process of democratization is presently being realized by the Iranian people and many of their leaders despite many past mistakes and in the face of criminal abuses by the regime, and that democracy can arise unexpectantly when a convergence of ethics, religion, and politics takes place.

 

Dr. Yazdi’s way of interpreting Iranian developments is being dangerously obscured in the West by the current aggressive postures adopted and inflammatory propaganda disseminated by Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. We who wish for peace and justice can only hope that Dr. Yazdi’s vision comes to prevail in Iran and is respected by the world, and especially by the United States. Although his lifelong preoccupation was Iran, Dr. Yazdi’s deep engagement with democracy has universal applicability, and never more than now, and not only in the Islamic world, but wherever people seek to live together in a spirit of mutual respect and understanding, somewhat along the lines that Jacques Derrida had in mind when he spoke of ‘democracy to come.’

Interrogating the Qatar Rift

7 Jun

 

The abrupt announcement that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, UAE, Yemen, the Maldive Islands, and the eastern government in divided Libya have broken all economic and political ties with Qatar has given rise to a tsunami of conjecture, wild speculation, and most of all, to wishful thinking and doomsday worries. There is also a veil of confusion arising from mystifying reports that hackers with alleged Russian connections placed a fake news story that implicated Qatar in the promotion of extremist groups in the region. Given Russian alignments, it makes no sense to create conditions that increase the credibility of anti-Iran forces. And finally the timing and nature of the terrorist suicide attacks of June 7th on the Iranian Parliament and on the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini adds a particularly mystifying twist to the rapidly unfolding Qatar drama, especially if the ISIS claim of responsibility is substantiated.

 

Four preliminary cautionary observations seem apt: (1) the public explanation given for this rupture is almost certainly disconnected from its true meaning. That is, the break with Qatar is not about strengthening the anti-ISIS, anti-extremist coalition of Arab forces. Such an explanation may play well in the Trump White House, but it is far removed from understanding why this potentially menacing anti-Qatar regional earthquake erupted at this time, and what it is truly about. (2) Any claim to provide a clear account of why? And why now? should be viewed with great skepticism, if not suspicion. There are in the regional context too many actors, crosscurrents, uncertainties, conflicts, mixed and hidden motives and contradictions at play as to make any effort at this stage to give a reliable and coherent account of this Qatar crisis bound to be misleading.

 

(3) Yet despite these caveats, there are several mainly unspoken dimensions of the crisis that can be brought to the surface, and sophisticate our understanding beyond the various self-serving polemical interpretations that are being put forward, including the centrality of Israeli-American backing for a tough line on Iran and the realization that Gulf grievances against Qatar have been brewing for recent years for reasons unrelated to ISIS, and led to an earlier milder confrontation in 2014 that was then quickly overcome with the help of American diplomacy.

 

And (4) The anti-Iran fervor only makes sense from the perspective of the Gulf monarchies (other than Qatar) and Israel, but seems radically inconsistent with American regional interests and counter-ISIS priorities—Iran is not associated with any of the terrorist incidents occurring in Europe and the United States, and ISIS and Iran are pitted against each other on sectarian grounds. Intriguingly, neither Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), nor Israel, that is, the principal antagonists of Qatar, have been ever targeted by ISIS.

 

The main contention of the anti-Qatar Arab governments, led by Saudi Arabia, is that this coordinated diplomatic pushback is motivated by anti-terrorist priorities. On its face this seems to be a ridiculous claim to come from the Saudis, and can only make some sense as part of a calculated effort to throw pursuing dogs in the hunt for ISIS off a course that if followed would inevitably implicate the Riyadh government. It has long been known by intelligence services and academic experts that it is Saudi Arabia, including members of its royal family, that have been funding Jihadi extremism in the Middle East and has for many years been spending billions to spread Salifist extremism throughout the Islamic world.

 

By comparison, although far from innocent or consistent of terrorist linkages, as well as being internally oppressive, especially toward its migrant foreign workers, Qatar is a minor player in this high stakes political imbroglio. For the Saudis to take the lead in this crusade against Qatar may play well in Washington, Tel Aviv, and London, but fools few in the region. Trump has with characteristic ill-informed bravado has taken ill-advised credit for this turn against Qatar, claiming it to be an immediate payoff of his recent visit to the Kingdom, ramping up still further the provocative buildup of pressure on Iran. To claim a political victory given the circumstances rather than admit a geopolitical faux pas might seem strange for any leader other than Trump. It is almost perverse considering that the al-Udeid Air Base is in Qatar, which is the largest American military facility in the Middle East, operated as a regional command center actively used in bombing raids against Iraq and Afghanistan, and serviced by upwards of 10,000 American military personnel.

 

Netanyahu warmongers will certainly be cheered by this course of events and Israel has not hidden its support for the anti-Qatar moves of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It achieves two Israeli goals: its longtime undertaken to encourage splits and disorder in the Arab world and its campaign to maximize pressures on Iran.

 

Interestingly, Jeremy Corbyn at the start of the week when the momentous British elections are scheduled to take place, called on Teresa May to release a report (prepared while David Cameron was prime minister), supposedly an explosive exposure of Saudi funding and support for Islamic extremism in the Middle East. All in all, a first approximation of the Qatar crisis is to view it as a desperate move by Riyadh to get off the hot seat with respect to its own major responsibility for the origins and buildup of political extremism in the Middle East, which has indirectly produced the inflaming incidents in principal European cities during the last several years. Such a move to isolate and punish Qatar was emboldened by the blundering encouragement of Donald Trump, whether acting on impulse or at the beckoning of Israel’s and Saudi leaders, confusing genuine counter-terrorist priorities with a dysfunctional effort to push Iran against the wall. Trump seems to forget, if he ever knew, that Iran is fighting against ISIS in Syria, has strongly reaffirmed moderate leadership in its recent presidential elections, and if Iran were brought in from the cold could be a major calming influence in the region. True, Iran has given support to Hezbollah and Hamas, but except in Syria not with much effect, and on a scale far smaller than what other actors in the region have been doing to maintain their control and push their agendas. In effect, if Washington pursued national interests in the spirit of political realism, it would regard Iran as a potential ally, and put a large question mark next to its two distorting ‘special relationships,’ with Saudi Arabia and Israel. In effect, reverse its regional alignments in a way that could replace turmoil with stability, but this is not about to happen. The American media, and thoughtful citizens, should at least be wondering ‘why?’ rather than staring into darkness of a starless nighttime sky.

 

But this is not all. The Saudis, along with the UAE and Egypt, have long resented and maybe feared the early willingness of Qatar to give some sanctuary and aid and comfort to various elements of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. It is hardly farfetched to assume that Israel is outraged by the Emir of Qatar’s friendship and earlier support for the Hamas exiled leader, Khaled Mashaal. Saudi Arabia strives to obscure its incoherent approach to political Islam. It loudly proclaims Sunni identity when intervening in Syria, waging war in Yemen, and calling for confrontation with Iran, while totally repudiating its sectarian identity when dealing with societally or democratically oriented Islamic movements in neighboring countries. Such an anti-democratiing orientation was dramatically present when Riyadh and Abu Dhabi scolded Washington for abandoning Mubarak’s harsh authoritarian secular rule in Egypt back in 2011 and then welcoming the anti-Morsi coup led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi two years later, even welcoming its bloody suppression of Sunni adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood. As has been long obvious to close and honest observers of the Kingdom, the Saudi monarchy has become so fearful of an internal uprising challenging its oppressive rule that it will oppose any liberalizing or democratizing challenge anywhere in its neighborhood. The Kingdom is particularly wary of its Shia minority that happens to be concentrated in locations near where the main Saudi oil fields are located. Similar concerns also help explain why Bahrain behaves as it does as it also fearful of a domestic Shia led majority opposition, which has made it a strategically dependent, yet ardent, adherent of the anti-Qatar coalition.

 

Also far more relevant than acknowledged is the presence of Al Jazeera in Doha, which at various times has voiced support for the Arab Uprisings of 2011, criticism of the Israeli practices and policies toward the Palestinians, and provided an Arabic media source of relatively independent news coverage throughout the region. Qatar is guilty of other irritants of the dominant Gulf political sensibility. It has arranged academic positions for such prominent Palestinian dissidents as Azmi Bashara and more than its neighbors has given welcome to intellectual refugees from Arab countries, especially Egypt. Given the way the Gulf rulers close off all political space within their borders it is to be expected that they find the relative openness of Qatar a threat as well as consider it to be a negative judgment passed on their style of governance.

 

Qatar is very vulnerable to pressure, but also has certain strengths. Its population of 2.5 million (only 200,000 of whom are citizens), imports at least 40% of its food across the Saudi border, now closed to the 600-800 daily truck traffic. Not surprisingly, this sudden closure has sparked panic among Qataris, who are reportedly stockpiling food and cash. The Doha stock market dropped over 7% on the first day after the Gulf break was announced. Qatar is the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, and is a major source of Turkish investment capital. Western Europe is wary of this American project to establish an ‘Arab NATO,’ and sees it as one more manifestation of Trump’s dysfunctional and mindless impact on world order.

 

What this portends for the future remains is highly uncertain. Some look upon these moves against Qatar as a tempest in a teapot that will disappear almost as quickly as it emerged. The U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and the Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, have urged mediation and offered reassuring comments about anti-ISIS unity remaining unimpaired. It is true that the existence of the Udeid Air Base in Qatar may in time dilute deference to the Saudi-led desire to squeeze the government in Doha, possibly to the point of its collapse. A more fearsome scenario is that the Trump encouraged confrontation sets the stage for a coup in Qatar that will be quickly supported by Washington as soon as Riyadh gives the green light, and will be promoted as part of the regional buildup against Iran. The notorious ceremony in which King Salmon, Trump, and Sisi were pictured standing above that glowing orb with their arms outstretched can only be reasonably interpreted as a pledge of solidarity among dark forces of intervention. Many of us supposed that George W. Bush’s policy of ‘democracy promotion’ that provided part of the rationale for the disastrous 2003 attack on Iraq was the low point in American foreign policy in the Middle East, but Trump is already proving us wrong.

 

While this kind of ‘great game’ is being played at Qatar’s expense in the Gulf, it is highly unlikely that other major players, especially Iran, Russia, and Turkey will remain passive observers, especially if the crisis lingers or deepens. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Mohammed Zarif, has non-aggressively tweeted to the effect that “neighbors are permanent; geography can’t be changed,” stating his view that the occasion calls for dialogue, not coercion. If the isolation of Qatar is not quickly ended, it is likely that Iran will start making food available and shipping other supplies to this beleaguered tiny peninsular country whose sovereignty is being so deeply threatened.

 

Russia, has been long collaborating with Iran in Syria, will likely move toward greater solidarity with Tehran, creating a highly unstable balance of power in the Middle East with frightening risks of escalation and miscalculation. Russia will also take advantage of the diplomatic opportunity to tell the world that the U.S. is seeking to raise war fevers and cause havoc by championing aggressive moves that further the ambitions of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel. Such Russian diplomacy is likely to play well in Europe where Trump’s recent demeaning words in Brussels to NATO members made the leading governments rethink their security policies, and to view the United States as an increasingly destabilizing force on the global stage, such feeling being reinforced by the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

 

Turkey seems to believe that its immediate effort should be similar to that of the Tillerson and Mattis approach, having tentatively offered to mediate, and advocates finding a way back to a posture of at least peaceful co-existence between Qatar, the Gulf, and the rest of the Arab world. Turkey has had a positive relationship with Qatar, which includes a small Turkish military facility and large Qatari investments in the Turkish economy.

 

To cool things down, the Foreign Minister of Qatar, Sheik Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, while denying the allegations, has also joined in the call for mediation and even reconciliation. Bowing to Gulf pressures, Qatar has prior to the current crisis withdrawn its welcome from Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood exiles, and seems poised to yield further to the pressures of the moment, given its small size, political vulnerability, and intimations of possible societal panic.

 

While the civilian population of Yemen is faced with imminent famine as an intended consequence of the Saudi intervention, the Saudis seems to be again using food as a weapon, this time to compel Qatar to submit to its regional priorities and become a GCC team player with respect to Iran—joining in the preparation of a sectarian war against Iran while maintaining a repressive hold over political activity at home. One preliminary takeaway is that ISIS dimension is serving as a smokescreen to draw attention away from a far more controversial agenda. The Saudis are deeply implicated in political extremism throughout the region, having likely paid heavily for being treated, temporarily at least, as off limits for Jihadi extremism. Qatar, too is tainted, but mainly by being a minor operative in Syrian violence and in 2015 paying ISIS an amount rumored to be as high as $1 billion to obtain the release of 26 Qataris, including members of the royal family, taken hostage while on a falcon hunting party, of all things, in Iraq. We can gain some glimmers of understanding of what is motivating these Arab governments to act against Qatar, but little sympathy. In comparison, the new U.S. foreign policy in the region defies any understanding beyond its adoption of a cynical and unworkable geopolitical stance, which certainly does not engender any sympathy from the victimized peoples of the region, but rather fear and loathing.  

Trumped Up Diplomacy in the Middle East

20 May

 

In his first overseas trip since moving into the White House, Donald Trump is leaving behind the frustrations, allegations, rumors, and an increasing sense of implosion that seems to be dooming his presidency during its second hundred days. At the same time, a mixture of curiosity and apprehension awaits this new leader wherever he goes making his visit to the Middle East and Europe momentous occasions for the host governments, wide eyed public, and rapacious media. We need to remember that in this era of popular autocrats and surging right-wing populists, Trump is a ‘hero of our time.’

 

Even if all had gone smoothly for the new president in his home country, there should be expressions of deep concern about his travel itinerary. He visits first the two countries with which the United States has ‘special relationships’ in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Israel. What has long made them ‘special’ are a series of pre-Trump departures from realist and normative foreign policy orientations by successive American presidencies. These departures were motivated by oil geopolitics, arms sales and strategic alliances, hostility to Iran, and a disguised American sweet spot for foreign royalty. It is has long been obvious that uncritical deference to Israeli priorities has seriously undermined U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, which would have benefitted much more from policies designed to encourage peace and stability by refraining from regime-changing interventions, massive arms sales, and a diplomacy of respect for the politics of national self-determination.

 

Most remarkably, the U.S. Government has for decades winked at the billions of support given by Saudi members of the royal family to Wahabism, that is, to promote fundamentalist Islam, throughout the Muslim world. The first words uttered by Trump on his arrival in Riyadh were that it ‘an honor’ to be visiting.

Then came signed deals adding up to $110 billions in arms sales and the declaration of a common strategic vision, that is, a super-alliance, called an ‘Arab NATO’ in some circles, a dagger aimed at Iran’s heart. Why turn a blind eye toward the Saudi role in fanning the flames of jihadism while ramping up a military threat to relatively passive Iran that reelected Hassan Rouhani as its president, who has consistently championed moderation at home and normalization abroad.

 

How can we explain this? Trump has been critical of most aspects of the foreign policy agenda of his predecessors, but on the promotion of the special relationships he seems intent on doubling down on the most misguided aspects of earlier approaches to the region. The shape of his travel itinerary during his days confirms this impression. In this regard, Trump repudiates Obama’s hesitant, but in the end successful, efforts to bring Iran in from the cold, while trying to please Saudi Arabia by ignoring its extreme denial of human rights to its own people as well as its contributions to anti-Western terrorism.

 

If Trump was truly intent on putting America first, as he insistently asserts, then he could do so very directly and effectively by taking three major steps toward the protection of national interests: first, demand a firm commitment from the Saudi government to cease using private funds and public diplomacy to spread Wahabism beyond its borders. Any credible public statement along these lines would weaken ISIS and other terrorist movements throughout the world far more than cascades of Tomahawk missiles dumped on a Syrian airfield. Such a challenge to Saudi policies also raises the possibility, however remote, of an endgame in the ‘war on terror.’ If such a reset of Saudi relations could be coupled with an indefinite freeze on arms sales to the Gulf countries that would have been even better, sending a signal throughout the region that America will no longer engage with the bloody conflicts that have brought so much suffering and devastation to the Middle East. This might give some belated meaning to ‘America first.’

 

The second step would have been even harder for an American president to take. It would require Trump to tell Mr. Netanyahu that no further military assistance for Israel would be authorized until an unconditional freeze on settlement expansion was in place and enforced, and the blockade of Gaza lifted once and for all.

 

It does not require a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies to appreciate that the establishment of a nuclear free zone in the region and the adoption of effective steps to minimize the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia Islam would improve future prospects for this horrendously disrupted political realities, at last reducing tensions and risks of wars. Nor does it require special knowledge to identify the obstacles such actions—the one government that already possesses nuclear weapons and the government that feels threatened by a challenge to its regional preeminence. Saudi Arabia and Israel both regard Iran as enemy number one, although it poses no existential threat to either one, and Israel will not even discuss giving up its nuclear arsenal despite being assured by Washington that its qualitative edge in conventional weaponry relative to its neighbors will be upheld.

 

The special relationships block even the consideration of enlightened initiatives, take them entirely off the table. This contrasts with the American proclivity for coercive diplomacy, which always assertively leaves the military option on the table. Without tension-reducing measures, a few false moves could easily give rise to a major war with Iran, which might bring smiles to leaders in Riyadh and Tel Aviv, but would be disastrous for the societies involved and for the United States, as well as for the region.

 

Given the leverage and militancy of pro-Israeli lobbies in the United States, more realistically pursuing American national interests toward Israel and the Middle East, seems tantamount to issuing invitations to Trump’s beheading, and despite his wildly gyrations of policy and mood, he has shown no disposition whatsoever to take on AIPAC, inc.. Quite the contrary.

 

Of course, I am not so naïve to think that the advocacy of rationality in foreign policy will have the slightest echo in Washington in the course of Trump’s current diplomatic foray into uncharted territories. What I wish to point out is that this kind of foreign policy fantasy, however desirable if it were to be enacted, has become a species of political suicide. Any political leader who moved in more rational directions would be risking his own life, at least politically. The proposals mentioned above tells us what an American president should do if a rational and humane political system was in place and organized in such ways as to allow the pursuit of national interests, the realization of values associated with peace and human rights, and to attain the benefits of just and sustainable Isreali/Palestinian peace arrangements.

 

As long as these dysfunctional special relationships are relied upon to define American national interests in the Middle East, violent extremism and turmoil will persist, the authority of the United Nations and international law will suffer, and the credibility of American regional and global leadership will further erode. And maybe worst of all, the mounting ecological and nuclear challenges of global scope and apocalyptical risk will be remain unattended in what has become the greatest display of species indifference to its own survival throughout human history.

 

Mainstream advice on the Middle East being proffered to the Trump presidency by Beltway sharpshooters takes for granted the geopolitical status quo questioned above. The problems presented by the two special relationships are not even mentioned. Given these perspectives there are three broad kinds of approaches recommended for the region: (1) don’t aim too high, lower expectations, and don’t touch raw nerves in Israel or the Arab world (e.g. moving the American embassy to Jerusalem or telling Israel to dismantle the separation wall, stop expanding settlements, or handle the ongoing hunger strike humanely)[See Aaron David Miller, “From My Twenty Years of Failing at Middle East Peace,” Foreign Policy online, May 19, 2017]; (2) gang up on Iran, which will please both Israel and Saudi Arabia, and will have some positive resonance back in the United States [e.g. Michael Doran, “A Trump Plan for the Middle East,” NY Times, May 19, 2017]; (3) adopt the Israeli hard right view, now pushed within the United States, that the best road to ‘peace’ is to give Israel a green light to exert even greater pressure on the Palestinians to the point of their surrender. [a position repeatedly advocated by Daniel Pipes on the online listserv Middle East Forum and elsewhere, see Pipes, “The Way to Peace: Israeli Victory and Palestinian Defeat,” Commentary, Jan. 2017; Pipes boasts of his work with the Congressional Israel Victory Caucus that wants the U.S. Government to stop talking about ‘the two state solution,’ and support an Israeli shift from managing the status quo to launching a campaign to defeat Palestinians so decisively as to end the conflict.]

 

The first of these approaches is a cautionary warning to Trump the maker of grand deals not to exceed the boundaries of the feasible. The Israel/Palestine conflict is not ripe for resolution, Israel has no incentive or inclination to reach a fair compromise and even if it were, the Palestinians are currently too fragmented and poorly led to provide a reliable negotiating partner. The second geopolitically oriented approach makes matters worse, pushing the sectarian and secular divides in the direction of a regional confrontation, even combat. The third is geopolitically triumphalist, assuming that the Palestinians can be induced to give up their century old struggle, and go the way of other indigenous lost causes that have succumbed to predatory settler movements.

 

As Trump dominates the news by his visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel we should not be tricked into thinking that his ‘achievements’ are hopeful developments. The only true beacons of hope for the peoples of the Middle East are the contrarian affirmations of the Palestinian hunger strike, the Rouhani electoral victory, and the BDS Campaign. The fact that such developments are ignored or condemned by the dominant political forces in the West should at least alert us to gathering storm clouds in that tormented region and elsewhere.