Archive for June, 2009

Getting Tough with Iran?

Posted in Iran, Middle East Conflict with tags , , on June 28, 2009 by whatafteriraq

As some level of turmoil ebbed and flowed in Iran last week, one thread of criticism in the United States, coming principally from Republicans like John McCain (whose defeat in the November 2008 election seems like a better thing almost every day), was that the United States–read President Obama–was not being “tough enough” with the Tehran regime. The implication was that the U.S. should “do something” to reduce the Iranian regime’s crackdown on Iranians demonstrating against the election results there.

Beyond its basic macho appeal (“walk softly, carry a big stick, occasionally hit yourself over the head with the big stick”?) such entreaties make, what exactly do they mean? Not very much, I fear.

The arguments against a “get tough” policy against Iran flow from defects in what exactly getting tough means. I have isolated three such arguments, although I suppose there could be more.

1. “We should back Moussavi, the people’s choice.” Hogwash. First, Moussavi is hardly the kind of person with whom the United States has common cause. He did, after all, come to prominance in Iran after the 1979 revolution on the basis of his hatred for the U.S. Second, the last thing any Iranian politician can afford is to be associated with the United States government. We need to remember, as some have pointed out, that the U.S. government (unlike the American people) is not well regarded in Iran. We did, after all, engineer the overthrow of Iran’s only democratically elected regime and did help train and direct SAVAK, the Shah’s highly repressive secret police. The “great Satan” description, offensive though we may find it, did not come from nowhere. Third, it is not clear that Moussavi’s popularity in Iran extends beyond the fact that is he the not-Ahmedinejad. Associating him with American support (which he does not seek) would assure he never rises beyond not-Ahmediniejad. Scratch that rationale.

2. “We should impose greater sanctions on Iran to make them back down.” This is the American chestnut response to crises generally, it seldom works anywhere, and will not work here. Why not? First, we already have sanctions against Iran that don’t work, and since we don’t import Iranian oil,what else can we embargo? Pistaccios? Caviar? Second, any sanctions that might work must come from the EU (whose members do trade with Iran) or the UN. Go talk to them.  Third, sanctions usually end up punishing the innocent, not those who sanctioners want to punish. Did Saddam Hussein or the Iraqi people suffer from American sanctions in the 1990s? You know the answer. Sanctions are a loser.

3.”As leader of the free world, we cannot turn our backs on what happens in Iran.” Nonsense–of course we can, and here’s why. First, the American foreign policy plate is full, and everyone knows it. Exactly how (other than sanctions) are we going to force the Iranians to do anything? Threaten them with military action? Get real here. Second, eventually we will have to deal with whoever rules Iran on regional matters (help with Iraq and Afghanistan) and about the nuclear program in the future. Is alienating them going to help that? Or is getting tough hitting ourselves over the head with the stick? Third, we are already overcommitted in that part of the world and are clearly in over our heads in terms of understanding and dealing with the region’s problems. A more active policy in Iran will simply make our mismanagement of the region worse. To paraphrase the old folk song and title of Richard Rovere’s book on Vietnam, “we’re waist deep in the big muddy, and the damned fools said (are telling us) to go on.”

Getting tough with Iran sounds good until you think about it for a nanosecond or more. What the Iranian mullahs are doing is reprehensible, and we are quite right in condemning it. Having said that, what is happening there is not primarily an American problem with American solutions. It is certainly an Iranian problem, and it may be a broader international problem that should engage the UN.  Beyond what we are already doing (admittedly not a whole lot), it is hard to see what–or why–we should be sticking our noses further under the Iranian tent.

Iran in 1979 and 2009

Posted in Iran with tags , , on June 20, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The images coming out of Tehran the past week–and especially today–are intoxicating. What is going on? Is there a new Iranian Revolution in the making? Is George W. Bush’s policy of democracy promotion being vindicated on the streets of Iran’s capital? Is there a fundamental change about to break out in Iran? Will 2009 be a pro-democratic version of the Iranian Revolution of 1979?

Before one begins to wax too enthusiastically about the Tehran events, it is worthwhile to step back, take a deep breath, and look at what is different about now and then. The differences may well prove to be profound in determining the outcome.

Three major differences stand out to me. The first is that the demonstrations are much more physically isolated today than they were in 1979. In the year or so prior to the demonstrations that helped bring down the Shah, demonstrations occurred across the country, in cities and towns throughout the provinces that gradually became larger and moved toward the center of power in Tehran. There is little indication that the demonstrations this time are so regionally diffuse. This is important because the basis of support of the current regime is in the provinces among the rural and semi-urban lower classes, not among the urbanized middle class in Tehran.  This concentration in the capital thus raises questions about the extent of support for demonstrations against Ahmedinejad, Khamenei, and the election results.

Second (and related), there is a definite class difference in support and opposition this time. In 1979, the urbanized middle class and the rural or recently urbanized peasantry joined in protests against the Shah. It was an odd coalition at the time, since the two sides had quite different agendas: democratization, modernization, and economic and political opportunity among the middle class; Islamic purity among the masses. They could coalesce for two reasons. One was that the Shah suppressed both desires and was thus a convenient displacement object. The other was that both groups felt they could manipulate the other and provide the eventual ledarship of Iran. The middle class, of course, was wrong.

The tables are turned this time. The ruling regime is the representative of the religious right in the country, and they are supporting both Khamenei and Ahmedinejad. That means the middle class, with whom we in the West most readily identify, is pretty much on its own and is pretty much isolated. One has the feeling that reporting of events is probably making their success more likely than it in fact is–at least partially because they represent the side we–including the press–want to see win.

The third, and possibly most important, difference, is in the ability of the regime to keep itself in power. In 1979, the demonstrations that caused the Shah ultimately to flee into exile had gradually grown over time, and many in the West were amazed that the Shah had not acted decisively to crack down on the demonstrations before it became too late. In retrospect, the reasons were probably some combination of the debilitating effects of the chemotherapy the Shah was undergoing on his ability to make decisions at critical points and admonitions from the Carter administration not to act with historical regime suppressive zeal (which was more important is hard to say).

The regime in 2009 is showing no such indecisiveness. They are not acting with quite the overt violence (at least not yet) that has marked Iranian politics in the past, but they have made it quite clear who they certify as the winners and the unacceptability of dissent from that official outcome. We in the West may not like the results of the election or the honesty of election procedures, but there is not a whole lot we can do about them either. Unless the demonstrations widen noticeably (and it is hard to see how they will, given that the urban, middle class support base in Iran is limited) or the government becomes openly thuggish and brutal (always a possibility), there is little to do but sit on the sidelines and cluck disapprovingly.

It is also one of the supreme ironies of all this that the focus of so-called “moderate reform” is Mir Hussein Moussavi, who is hardly anyone’s historic vision of moderation and progress. This is, after all, a guy who made his name in the 1979 Iranian Revolution who seems moderate and progressive only when compared to Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

It is the weekend, when news is typically slow, and thus the 24/7 news media are having a feeding frenzy on fragments of reports about the demonstrations. Are we taking all this too seriously? Is this the beginning of serious change in Iran? Don’t bet the farm on it.

Bibi’s Speech

Posted in Israel and the United States, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , on June 15, 2009 by whatafteriraq

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Nrtanyahu gave a speech in Israel yesterday widely viewed as a response to President Obama’s Cairo speech. In it, Netanyahu conceded, for the first time, acceptance of the idea of a Palestinian state. He also provided an absolutely predictable and well worn set of conditions for proceeding toward the goal of two states that effectively guarantee that progress toward that goal will not occur.

Bibi’s continued (and, one assumes, heartfelt) reluctance to embrace a real Palestinian state is evident in the three conditions he places on progress toward the goal. First, he insists that the Palestinian state must be demilitarized and that there be international guarantees that Palestine will not develop a military capability. Second, he insists that the Palestinian state cede control over its air space, leaving that under the domain of the Israeli Air Force. Third, he insists that the Palestinians formally accept Israel as a Jewish state. The first two concerns arise from Israeli fears that a Palestinian state will become a sanctuary for attacks on Israel, with Hamas action in Gaza as thebasis for comparison. The third is to undermine any future argument the Palestinians might have for a return of Israeli territory to Palestinian control.

The speech was also notable for what it did not say. On the major point of contention between the U.S. and Israel, Bibi did not accept the principle of freezing and rolling back West Bank settlements. Instead, he agreed not to build new settlements but to allow the :natural growth” of those that exist. Second, he explicitly rejected the “right of return” of former Palestinian residents of Israel to go back to and reclaim territory they fled in 1948. Third, he reiterated his position that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel alone, thereby rejecting any claims the Palestinians had toward parts of the city and their claim that Jerusalem is also their capital.

Does the Netanyau speech break new ground or constitute any movement forward in the peace process to which the Obama administration appears committed? The answer is clearly that it does not. The speech was a rhetorical acceptance of the two-state principle, presumably to unruffle some feathers in Washington, but it continues to contain barriers to progress that guarantee that no progress is made. Was that the whole purpose of the speech? It certainly appears that way.

Is Obama Anti-Israeli?

Posted in Israel and the United States, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , on June 12, 2009 by whatafteriraq

An uncharacteristically icy breeze has blown over the relationship between the United States and Israel, and it appears the Israelis in particular have little idea how to deal with the new American stance toward them and their policies. The change must seem especially difficult given the history of relations between the two countries over the past eight years, where the modal U.S. response to any Israeli initiative seemed to have been to endorse it. That has clearly changed.

The issue that divides the two countries, of course, is the settlement of Palestinian state question. The Bush administration tepidly endorsed the idea of an independent Palestinian state as part of its so-called Road Map and even rhetorically opposed the expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank that are the current symbol of the loggerheads regarding movement on the Palestinian questions. That said, Bush and Secretary of State Condi Rice did little to push a reluctant Israel toward a peace settlement and kept its objections to the continuing flow of settlers into the occupied zone (a direct violation of international law) behind closed doors. Obama has opened those doors to a new Israeli government much more opposed to the two-state solution than its predecessors (who hardly embraced the idea) and has argued that the creation of a Palestinian state is one of the, if not the, most important hinges for peace in the region.

The Netanyahou government acts like it does not quite know what to do about this new American stance. Obama would clearly like Bibi and Company to halt settlement construction, roll back the Israeli population on the West Bank to something like the pre-1967 dimensions, and proceed with negotiating an independent Palestine. Bibi does not want to do any of these things and probably cannot politically. Netanyahou is, after all, the inheritor of the Greater Israel banner, and his father defined that Greater Israel to include Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. His career, and his standing in Likud, is premised on keeping and incorporating the occupied West Bank into Israel. Moreover, he heads a minority government with a tenuous hold on power, and his core support base is dominated by settlers and their supporters. Backing down would amount to political suicide (an outcome which, one suspects, would not exactly displease the Obama administration).

Obama, in other words, is trying to influence the Israeli political system to change in ways that system is not sure it wants to change. Set aside the argument that this is precisely what the Israelis have been doing all along in the United States (influencing U.S. policy in Israel’s interests). The question is whether what Obama wants is in the best interest of Isfrael or not: Is Obama anti-Israeli?

Obama and his supporters would clearly say No! Rather, their argument is that compromise on the two-state question (and thus on the settlements) is the only way the Israelis can ever have the peace they have always said is their principal goal. Some Israelis agree with Obama, others do not. Does disagreement over policy make one anti-Israeli? Obama and his supporters think not. Rather, they would argue the “tough love” they are trying to get the Israelis to accept is really the only long-term PRO-Israeli position to take. One can, and people do, disagree on this question. To call proponents on one side or another pro- or anti-Israeli overall is more or less like saying advocates or opponentsof health care reform in the United States are pro-or anti-American.

Bad analogy, one might say. Being on one side or another of health care reform may be important, but the issue of Palestine is potentially life-threatening to Israel, and that makes it different. Those who defend the Likud position argue that the Palsetinians have acted consistently perfidiously (not suspending terrorism, for instance) and that their leadership is corrupt and ineffective. Palestinians, of  course, argue much the same about Israeli perfidy (the settlements) and ineffectiveness in suppressing their own fanatics (the settlers).

One way to solve this problem may be an American guarantee (possibly reinforced by other regional actors) physically to provide security for all concerned in implementing a Palestinian state solution. This solution itself would be controversial. Where, for instance, would American forces come from to enforce it, given our military overcommitment in the region? Would either side trust outsiders (they have not in the past)? This might be an impractical solution, but is it any worse than what we have now?

Is Obama anti-Israeli? Or does he just see a different path to Israeli security than the current Israeli regime? It’s a matter of opinion.

Hardening Positions on Israel and Palestine

Posted in Israel and the United States, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , on June 4, 2009 by whatafteriraq

In his epic speech in Cairo this morning, President Obama laid down more clearly and unequivocally than previously his position on the Palestine situation and, in the process, brought the United States into the starkest conmfrontation with the government of Israel in recent times.

Both sides have hardened their positions. Over the weekend, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahou rejected the American insistence on “freezing” further development of new settlements on the West Bank, stating that “Israel cannot freeze life in the settlements.” Israeli officials yesterday complained publicly (if anonymously) that the Obama administration was reneging on Bush administration policies regarding the settlements, which they say contained four points: no new settlements to be started; no financial incentives to get additional Israelis to move to existing settlements; no new construction except in existing settlements; and no new Palestinian lands appropriated for additional settlements. In return for these limits, continuing development was supposedly permissible within existing settlement areas.

The Israelis contend that Obama wishes further to restrict this agreement unilaterally. In his Cairo speech, Obama made his position quite clear. “So let there be no doubt,” he said, “the situation of the Palsetinian people is intolerable.” The basic barrier to relieving the situation is in the settlement policy, and he is quite clear on that subject as well. “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements….It is time for these settlements to stop.”

The underlying dynamic of which the settlements are the symbol is, of course, the question of the Palestinian political state. The Netanyahou regime, rhetoric notwithstanding, is opposed to such a state, and it is hard to imagine the current Israeli prime minister will ever permit such a state to come into existence on his watch. Whether this position is praiseworthy or not is a matter of perspective.

The Obama position, which has been discussed in this space previously, is quite the opposite, and Obama reiterated that position in no uncertain terms in the Cairo speech: “The only resolution is for the aspiration of both sides to be met through two states….This is in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest, and the world’s interest.”

Netanyahou and Obama obviously disagree on what is in Israel’s interest, a question that can be and is debated endlessly and, all too often, venomously. What is absolutely clear is that the position of the United States and Israeli governments are diametrically opposed on this issue, that the positions are gradually hardening on both sides, and that as that hardening occurs, the possibility of compromise becomes progressively more remote. In this case, the lack of resolution is clearly a form of resolution in and of itself, since a continuation of the status quo means that more and more Israelis will move to West Bank settlements, with the consequence that the formation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank (the heart of the two-state solution) becomes increasingly physically impossible. Such a resolution by non-resolution clearly serves the purposes of the Netanyahou government and contradicts the position of the Obama administration.

Who will win this toe-to-toe confrontation? For the last eight years, it was clear that the Israelis would prevail, and they probably think they will this time too. The problem is that Obama clearly has a mind of his own on this issue, and by including his position in such stark terms for all the Muslim (and non-Muslim) world to see, he is making it increasingly (and purposely) difficult for him to back away from. There is a collision coming here!