Category Archives: US

The unsurprisingly sad irony of nuclear politics

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

While the war against Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program continues – with its usual suspects at the forefront and behind the screens (1, 2, 3, 4 … and counting) and with the usual stream of unreliable ‘sources’ being quoted liberally by global media to prove evil Iranian schemes and distorting the issue beyond recognition – a related and very relevant news item has received surprisingly little attention.

Last week, Muslim-majority states in the UN nuclear assembly pushed for a resolution – albeit, a nonbinding resolution – urging Israel to allow UN inspection to all its nuclear sites and to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty. What is amazing is that this is the first time in 18 years the nuclear conference has been able to pass a resolution criticizing Israel for its illegal, ‘clandestine’ program.

It has been a public secret for years that Israel has the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal, yet Israel has never confirmed or denied this. Furthermore, Israel is the only nation in the Middle East not to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It is, of course, part of the absurdity in the global Israeli propaganda war and constant military threats against Iran that those Western and Israeli politicians, ‘experts’ and lobby groups so worried about an Iranian bomb rarely if ever discuss the issue of Israel’s weapons – as if it was completely unrelated to the nuclear politics of the region. It comes across as particularly hypocritical and ludicrous when the chief delegate of the US – a nuclear-armed nation that wages wars in the Middle East while actively obstructing any attempt to hold Israel accountable in the nuclear conference – rejected what she called ‘redundant’ and ‘an attempt to use this resolution to criticize a single country’.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Iranians have sought to capitalize on the resolution and the setback it represents for Israel’s allies who have prevented the resolution for nearly two decades. The Iranian ambassador Ali-Asghar Soltanieh has hailed the resolution as a ‘glorious moment’, and ‘a triumph for the oppressed people of Palestine’. He added that Tehran would happily pay the expenses connected with a probe into the clandestine Israeli nuclear program ‘for the sake of global peace and welfare’.

The Israeli response shouldn’t come as a surprise either. The Israeli delegate stated that the resolution was ‘openly hostile to the state of Israel’ and that the Iranians and Syrians are trying to create a smokescreen for their own pursuit of nuclear weapons.

It is the sad irony of nuclear politics that Israel is just as big a threat to the fragile NPT regime as Iran is: outraged when the US hints it might be a good idea for it to join the NPT, and then deriding the NPT for not being a ‘miracle cure’.

It is the sad irony of global politics that a state such as the current Iranian regime is put in a position to capitalize on the resolution and thus present itself in the Muslim world as a righteous power while doing its own dirty work at home.

However, none of this should come as a surprise. Should it?

Lebanon’s government deadlock explained

 by Sune Haugbolle.

My last piece on Jumblatt’s defection from March 14 somewhat optimistically predicted a short delay in the government formation process. Since then things have gone really sour again. Here is an analysis of the obstacles and their implications.

Since the June parliamentary elections, the March 14 coalition has failed to use its victory to dictate the terms of a new government. The negotiations have faltered on March 8’s demand for a blocking third of cabinet posts. More deep-seated disagreements over Hizbollah’s weapons and Lebanon’s regional alliances add to the complications.

In July, the two camps appeared to have agreed on a compromise solution granting 15 posts to March 14 (short of a majority) and ten to March 8 (short of veto power), with President Michel Suleiman choosing five and thus having a decisive say. However, in recent weeks disagreement over the exact allocation of ministries has taken the process back to the start, and raised the tone of personal bickering and media slander to its shrillest level since 2008.

Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun has been at the centre of the latest crisis in government formation. On August 16, Aoun demanded that his Reform and Change bloc be allotted the Interior Ministry and that his son-in-law, caretaker minister Gebran Bassil, keep the Telecommunications Ministry for another term.

This uncompromising stance has prompted March 14 to criticise Hizbollah’s inability or unwillingness to mediate. Saad al-Hariri has made it clear that he is unlikely to accept Aoun’s conditions, which means that for now negotiations are deadlocked. Unless there is truth to al-Akhbar’s story from yesterday about a Saudi-Syrian push to kickstart talks, the most likely scenario now seems to be that the deliberations over a new cabinet will be postponed until after the end of Ramadan in late September.

As ever, domestic political wrangling in Lebanon reflects regional power struggles. Courtesy of US rapprochement, Syria has moved decisively out of the cold, and returned to its favoured position as the necessary diplomatic bridge between Iran and the West. Damascus’ relations with Saudi Arabia have yet to improve, as a scheduled meeting between King Abdallah and President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in late July was cancelled. Syria’s relations with Egypt, another key ally of Hariri, have been deep-frozen because of Egyptian allegations that Hizbollah members have been spying and plotting bomb attacks in Egypt. The first trial took place in Cairo yesterday, and the fallout is surely more bad blood between Egypt and Hizbollah.   

On the other front, Assad has moved to shore up relations with embattled Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad during a state visit on August 19. Here, Assad emphasised the necessity of resolute defence against Western influence in the region.

Syria’s strengthened position indirectly provoked the latest breakdown in government negotiations, when Druze leader Walid Jumblatt declared on August 2 that he would leave March 14. As I argued in my earlier piece, his aim was to hedge against Syria’s rising influence, and his defection has been widely seen as a victory for Damascus.

This is because Jumblatt, who is known for his ever-changing allegiances, has, since 2005, formed one-third of a strong coalition of Christian, Sunni and Druze opposition to Syrian influence in Lebanon, which has dominated Lebanese politics. Although it does not sound the death knell for March 14, Jumblatt’s defection still marks a tide change in Lebanese politics and opens up opportunities for new alliances in the coming months:

First, although Jumblatt has hardly embraced the Syrians, they are in a much stronger position in Lebanon. Hariri, now left with distinctly anti-Syrian Christian allies Amin Gemayel and Samir Geagea, may feel compelled to move towards a more conciliatory position, lest he alienate his Sunni constituency.

Second, while taking no concrete action, Jumblatt has spoken with members of both March 8 and March 14, and is locating himself in a central position between the two without joining either. He has signalled that he will be associating himself with Suleiman, adding to the possibility of a strong conciliatory bloc emerging — which would mediate between the two existing groups — and may also include Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri.

If such a strong third bloc does materialise, Aoun may also be tempted to reconsider his alliance with Hizbollah, which has not landed him the presidency or gained him much actual influence.

The biggest decisions to be taken are surely Saad Hariri’s. As prime minister-designate, and with Suleiman preferring a neutral role, the onus is squarely on Hariri to form a government, but he is left with some hard choices following Jumblatt’s defection. He has several options:

He could of course accommodate Aoun’s demands, which would make him look defeated by Aoun and Hizbollah, but would leave March 8 with no legitimate reasons to oppose a quick government formation.

Alternatively, he could carry through a planned visit to Damascus, which has been postponed. Effectively this would mean giving up his resistance to Syrian influence on the government formation process, particularly as the Syrians have signalled that they want Hariri to visit Damascus before the cabinet is finalised.

Finally, he could continue to oppose Syrian pressure. By not going to Damascus so far, Hariri has been signalling that he intends to resist the Syrian endeavour to re-impose some sort of hegemony over Lebanon. US discouragement of such a visit and Hariri’s reluctance to do business with a regime he believes to be responsible for his father’s assassination are also playing a part. As Michael Young suggested recently, they may have also contributed to the cancellation of the scheduled meeting in Damascus between Abdallah and Assad.

In conclusion, although March 14 would like to see a new government formed, Hariri appears ready to hold out for regional events which would tip the balance in his favour. This could either be US President Barack Obama’s expected Middle East peace initiative next month. While Obama’s peace plan might deflect attention from Lebanon, it could also prompt Syria to work with Saudi Arabia over Palestinian reconciliation and accept a new Lebanese government in return for inclusion in the peace process.  

Alternatively, Hariri could be waiting for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to issue an indictment naming Hizbollah as a participant in the assassination of Hariri’s father, as predicted by the German magazine, Der Spiegel, earlier this year. This would leave Syria weakened and more eager to reach an agreement.

Whatever he does, Hariri holds the keys to further progress. If he chooses to accommodate Aoun’s demand for a key ministry, he may be able to form a new government and hence avoid the more serious choice between openly accepting or rejecting Syrian hegemony. If not, deadlock could well continue at least until the end of Ramadan.

Arab reactions to Durban II: the ghost of colonialism

by Sune Haugbolle

 

The images of EU representatives walking out during Ahmedinejad’s speech in Genève yesterday, amidst the cheers of Arab and other representatives, are haunting. They speak of a chasm in cross-cultural understanding, and that sense will probably remain as a big ugly stain on our collective global consciousness from this event even if the diplomats manage to avoid further walk-outs and a final document is agreed upon. It is a chasm worth dwelling on for a bit. How can the world’s leaders, in 2009, disagree fundamentally on such a universally deplorable phenomenon as racism?

 

We can begin to grasp this chasm by looking at the Arab press’ reactions to Durban II. The views on racism presented here differ dramatically both from the Western press and from the universalising UN discourse that forms the basis of the conference. As columnist Mahmoud Mubarak wrote in al-Hayat on 20 April, “the seven years that have passed since Durban I have been some of the most racist in recent history.” From an Arab perspective, the US is to blame for much of this: the war on terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib, Quran-pissing in Guantanamo, have all been products of a resurgent neo-colonialist US under President Bush. Add to that the Muhammad cartoons, Israel’s incriminate wars on Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, the continued occupation of Palestinian territories, and the racist ideology that underpins it. One then wonders, according to Mubarak, why none of these issues will be on the agenda at Durban.

 

He answers the question himself. The reason is that the Western countries have other priorities, and perhaps other views of what racism means. Mubarak wryly ends his piece by noting that the Dutch call for a sentence on protecting “sexual freedoms” (ie. homosexuality) in the final document of Durban II “reflects the difference in thinking between the Islamic countries and Western countries on the priorities of this conference!”  

 

The op-ed on 21 April in another of the pan-Arab London dailies, al-Quds al-Arabi, follows suit. Why did the European delegates walk out, when Ahmedinejad, deplorable as he may be, “only spoke the truth”? This only underscores that the West is not fully committed to freedom of speech. In a conference on racism, critique of Israel, “the most racist regime since the dawn of time,” should be a natural given. At the very least, the critique should be listened to in full details. By walking out the EU delegates “consented to Israel’s position.”       

 

The feeling of victimization is well rehearsed and nothing new, and not without a certain sense of self-rightousness, as racism is also a fact and a problem in Arab societies and Arab politics. But the important part here is the totally different optic through which the issue of Palestine is viewed.

 

One should recall that the weeks leading up to the conference have seen an arduous diplomatic work to refine the final document – a piece of work not condoned by all nations, and certainly not by all populations either. Judging from the Danish debate surrounding “Durban II”, the usual cohort of Islam critics in Europe sees this conference basically as a venue for the display of Islamic power on the global scene. There is no understanding for the points of view put forth, least of all given that they come from less than democratic governments.

 

The points of contention are principally the questions of Palestine question critique of religions. The first was alluded to in the declaration from Durban I in 2001, which said: “We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation.” That caused an uproar back then in the US and Israel in particular by people who objected to the singling out of Israel, the only country mentioned in the declaration, even though there was other language that respected the “rights to security for all states in the region, including Israel”.

 

The explicit mention of Israel and the Palestinians has been removed from the new document. But at the same time the text reaffirms the 2001 declaration, which is why the US and Israel have strongly condemned the 2009 text also. Furthermore, an echo of the old formulation has survived in that the text emphasises the need to protect “all those under foreign occupation”. Again, despite its seemingly universal message, a troubling line to Israel, the US and other of its supporters.

 

The second question, regarding critique of religions, of course follows directly on from the Muhammad cartoons debate. During the negotiations leading up to the meeting, some Islamic countries attempted to introduce the concept of “defamation of religion.” This would have had the effect, so western and other critics argued, of restraining free speech.

 

The final document deplores the “derogatory stereotyping and stigmatization of persons based on their religion” without singling Islam out as the document deplores all religious intolerance including “Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christian phobia and anti-Arabism”. To some, not least in Denmark, the freedom of speech is so holy that anything that suggests an Islamic temperance of it by recourse to “racism” was seen as reason enough for the Danish government to stay away. As we know, the Danish Foreign Minister, quite boldly, chose to let Denmark participate, as did 22 other of his EU colleagues.

 

We have here the conflation of several contested issues, racism, islamophobia, freedom of speech and colonialism. Why colonialism? I believe that this is the basic explanation of the chasm that manifested itself in the walk-out yesterday. Colonialism was supported and justified by racist ideas and executed in a spirit of Caucasian and Christian supremacy. It is not the only history of racism. Racist ideas of other peoples have existed in many other parts of the word and in different historical periods. But it is one that has shaped our modern world decisively, and its effects persist in territorial conflicts such as that over Palestine.

 

The post-colonial states live with this historical experience in a whole other way that any of us in the West. Racism exists anywhere, but we are not equally subjected to it, and have not been equally subjected to it in history. At the UN we are all expected to agree on a formulation regarding this subject. We imagine a universality that is, frankly, illusory. To think that the world’s populations share in a common view on a discourse that has been instrumental in determining the power relations of modern history in way that subjugated large parts of the world to Western control is naïve and ahistorical.

 

Yes, but…, many would say, colonialism is over. Get on with it.

 

And this is why some walked out while others cheered.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hariri tribunal could spell end of quiet for Lebanon

by Sune Haugbolle.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon – the international court established to try the suspected killers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri – opened on March 1 in The Hague.

We shouldn’t expect too much dirt to materialise for a while. But in the long run, what will the tribunal mean to regional politics? And how will it influence Lebanese politics leading up to the June elections. Here is my analysis.

The UN Security Council unilaterally set up the tribunal in 2007 after the speaker of the Lebanese parliament refused to call a session to ratify the statutes to create it.

It is housed in the Netherlands, which already is home to the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal and International Criminal Court, primarily for security reasons.

As the first Middle Eastern court of its kind, the tribunal will use Lebanese law applied by a mixture of Lebanese and international judges. Its heaviest punishment is life imprisonment.

The court’s first act is likely to be a request for the Lebanese government to hand over four generals held in custody since 2005, as it has been given 60 days to transfer all arrested suspects from Beirut to The Hague. On February 25, three other suspects were freed by the Lebanese judicial authorities in Beirut. The three are considered ‘small fish’ who may have assisted in carrying out the crime but, unlike the generals, played no alleged role in planning it. Although they may later be summoned by the court, letting these potentially incriminating persons go is widely seen as a gesture by the Lebanese government towards Syria.

Hizbollah has called for the four generals to be released on grounds that the investigation is unfinished. This claim was rejected by the Lebanese investigating judge Sakr Sakr as well as Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

The spat over the suspects last week signals the re-emergence of mounting tension brought on by the Hariri tribunal as Lebanon looks ahead to parliamentary elections scheduled for June 7. So far, the country has remained remarkably quiet. Since the Doha Accords in May, President Michel Suleiman has been largely successful in subduing the feud between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions, which threatened stability in the country several times between 2005 and 2008. This quiet period could now be over.

Days before the launch of the tribunal, Saad al-Hariri signalled that his Future Movement will not share power in a unity government if Hizbollah and its allies win the election. Although other March 14 leaders may still favour a power-sharing agreement, Hariri’s remarks suggested that elections are unlikely to produce a repeat of the broad unity governments that have dominated in Lebanon since the 2005 elections.

March 14 leaders such as Walid Jumblatt and Samir Geagea have openly stated their expectation that the tribunal will lead to incrimination of Syrian top officials. The return of fiercely anti-Syrian rhetoric to Lebanese politics comes after a period when many leaders appeared to be accepting a Syrian-Lebanese rapprochement. It will have a polarising effect on Lebanese politics.

As the court begins its work, political comments will provide fuel for disagreement and add to the expected rise in sectarian tensions surrounding the elections.

In a worst-case scenario, victory for a Hizbollah-led coalition in the June elections could put the Lebanese government’s full support for the tribunal in jeopardy. The court has a budget for this year of 40.3 million euros (50.7 million dollars) of which Lebanon pays 49%. If Hizbollah was indeed to abandon Lebanese support for the tribunal, it would spark a serious political crisis. However, it is probably more likely that Hizbollah would stick with the tribunal. 

The first UN investigator to investigate the assassination, Detlev Mehlis, has recently, in an interview with al-Hayat, restated his belief that the plot’s complexity suggests that Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services played a role. In contrast, his two successors as chief investigator, Serge Brammertz and Daniel Bellemare, have revealed little about the progress of the investigation. However, since a date was set for the court’s opening by Bellemare, who now assumes the role of general prosecutor, it has been clear that the investigation has gathered enough material to begin the process, which will eventually lead to hearings and trials.

Despite the politically explosive content of the case, the actual workings of the court look set to be slow and arduous, for the following reasons:

– The court’s work is likely to take at least four years to finish, and progress may be slow. Robin Vincent, the tribunal’s registrar, has made it clear that formal charges or trials should not be expected before 2011.

– No judges have yet been named and the court still has no rulebook for prosecutors and judges. The appointment of Lebanese judges has been extremely controversial and remains unfinished.

– Syria is unlikely to cooperate and freely hand over suspects, which could slow down the proceedings considerably. Vincent has said that the tribunal could hold trials in absentia, but it is questionable how effective such trials would be.

Despite its likely slow progress, the Hariri court will inevitably throw negative light on Syria. That is particularly troubling for Damascus as it seeks to make real the many promises of a speedy thaw with the new US administration.

Western powers expect Syria to work actively against the court and have in response formed an ‘administrative committee’ consisting of the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, France and Japan, to ward off diplomatic pressure on the tribunal. The Syrian leadership, for its part, will continue to reject all charges while maintaining a semblance of cooperation with the UN.

While the Hariri court may weaken President Bashar al-Assad’s image as a moderate whose central position is vital to US Middle East policy, he will seek to balance the pressure by stressing Syria’s ties to Hamas, seen as crucial for Palestinian reconciliation and a renewal of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks; to Hizbollah, which will emerge in a new and more official role in charge of Lebanon’s government if it wins the June elections; and to Iran, whose nuclear file tops the Obama administration’s list of pressing issues in the Middle East. Syria, as always, will play the “centrally placed” card. And get away with it, most likely.

The more troubling question is how polarising the tribunal will be in Lebanon here and now. Certainly, the results of the Hariri tribunal will not materialise for several years, and only when they do can we start to debate its regional influence. But there is a strong chance that its effects in the short term will be to polarise Lebanese politics and hinder the formation of a unity government after the June elections.

UPDATE, 4/3

For those of you in Copenhagen, I will be speaking about truth and reconciliaiton in the Middle East today, here.

US: PJAK are terrorists – Obama Iran overture?

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Yesterday, the US Treasury branded the Kurdish guerilla group PJAK a terrorist group. PJAK has been a menace to the Islamic Republic for years. Is this a sign of the Obama administration’s overture to the Iranians?

Even though it has tried to present itself as an independent organization and as a pro-democratic grassroots movement, the PJAK is clearly an integrated part of the militant Kurdish organization PKK, which has been fighting the Turkish state for 25 years. PJAK is seen as the ‘Iranian version’ of PKK. For years, it has waged a war of skirmishes and ambushes against Iran, killing scores of Revolutionary Guards and border patrols. In 2005, PJAK killed more than a hundred Iranian soldiers; and on April 3, 2006, alone, it killed 24 members of the Islamic Republic’s security forces in retaliation for the killing of Kurdish demonstrators. The declared aim – at least until recently – has been to fight for the rights of Iran’s Kurds, who make up some 7% of the population.

Now, the US– after years of Iranian accusations of US support for anti-Iranian groups such as the PJAK – has branded the organization as terrorist. The US Treasury stated yesterday that it had

“… designated the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK), a Kurdish group operating in the border region between Iraq and Iran, under Executive Order 13224 for being controlled by the terrorist group Kongra-Gel (KGK, aka the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK)

The KGK leadership authorized certain Iranian-Kurdish KGK members to create a KGK splinter group that would portray itself as independent from but allied with KGK. PJAK was created to appeal to Iranian Kurds. KGK formally institutionalized PJAK in 2004 and selected five KGK members to serve as PJAK leaders, including Hajji Ahmadi, a KGK affiliate who became PJAK’s General Secretary. KGK leaders also selected the members of PJAK’s 40-person central committee. Although certain PJAK members objected to the KGK selecting their leaders, the KGK advised that PJAK had no choice.

As of April 2008, KGK leadership controlled PJAK and allocated personnel to the group. Separately, PJAK members have carried out their activities in accordance with orders received from KGK senior leaders. In one instance, PJAK’s armed wing, the East Kurdistan Defense Forces, had been acting independently in Iran. KGK senior leaders immediately intervened, however, and recalled the responsible PJAK officials to northern Iraq.”

According to this statement, the US will freeze the group’s assets and prohibit American citizens from doing business with it.

Seen as a common threat, ‘Axis of Evil’ member Iran and NATO-member Turkey have actually been cooperating in the fight against PKK/PJAK. Since 2006, this has led to Iranian and Turkish air and land raid across the border and well into Iraq, where the Kurds are enjoying near-autonomy. The PJAK base at Qandil Mountain in northern Iraq has been the main target for these attacks – but there have also been signs that Ankara and Tehran have cooperated in the border between Turkey and Iran. Experts have feared that Iranian incursions into Iraq could escalate into an open confrontation between US/Iraqi/Kurdish forces on one side, and the Iranian forces on the other. Iranian media even reported last year that the Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan had appealed to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene‘i to stop shelling Kurdish villages in Iraq.

It is furthermore interesting (but maybe not that surprising) that this US Treasury declaration has been framed within the context of US-Turkish relations, not US-Iran relations. While it is true that a broad segment of the Turkish population harbors increasingly hostile sentiments towards the US – in particular over the question of US support for the Kurds in Iraq – and while it is true that PJAK is a part of the PKK and therefore an enemy of the Turkish state, it is important to remember that the PJAK’s declared goal has been to fight Iran: it is Iran’s citizens (or military forces), not Turkey’s, that are (or were) PJAK’s targets. Therefore, the decision to brand PJAK a terrorist group can be interpreted more as a present to the Iranians than to the Turks.

However, the US decision also raises many questions. It is, for example, very odd how it is stated in the press release that “in one instance”, the PJAK had acted independently in Iran. What did the Treasury mean by “in one instance”, “independently” and “as of April 2008”? It seems to suggest that PJAK foot soldiers have tried to separate itself from PKK command.

Nonetheless, the (PKK?) decision to withdraw PJAK from Iran has been surfaced before. Since fall 2008, there have been reports of a decline in PJAK activities. On January 13, 2009, Iranian Entekhâb News quoted a report in the Turkish Aksam daily that Iran had “destroyed” the PJAK and that therefore, the group had declared an end to its “separatist activities”. Indeed, Entekhâb claimed that PJAK would not aim at the secession of Kurds from the states of Iran, Turkey, Iraq or Syria any longer.

Iranian state media has of course picked up the story. The state-run news agency added to its report that

“The PJAK party is, after the Hypocrite Group [that is, Mojahedin-e Khalq], the second anti-Iranian terrorist group to be placed on US lists over terrorist groups”

Under the heading “The US government’s belated confession to the terrorist nature of PJAK”, Rafsanjani-affiliated Shahâb News wrote that

“While news are published about CIA’s financial and military aid to groups such as PJAK and Abdolmalek Rigi’s [that is, Jondollah, described later in the article as “the Iranian division of Al-Qaeda”], the US government has placed the PJAK group on terror lists”

In the article, the Shahâb writer claims that the US decision to call PJAK a terrorist group is due to the fact that the group had suffered severe defeats at the hands of Iranian forces recently, making it unable to function.

With the Iranian media already buzzing with rumors of secret talks between Washington and Tehran, it is not hard to imagine that Iranians will see this decision as a positive sign. So, could the decision be seen as part of the Obama administration’s attempt to reach out to the Iranians and maybe prepare the ground for a grand bargain? Some Kurdish proponents certainly think so – and they are and will most certainly be opposed to “appeasing” the “Mullahs”.

What do you think? Please comment!

Heat wave in Copenhagen (and Mitchell in Beirut)

by Sune Haugbolle.

So, a US attempt to encourage direct Lebanese-Israeli peace talk is rumoured in parts of the Arab press. Is it based on real insights into the thinking of Obama’s Mid-East team, or is it another al-Siyassah duck? The Kuwaiti newspaper, known for its sensationalist scoops, which most of the time seem to be based on wild speculation or even politically motivated lies, but sometimes actually appear to have nailed the truth, on Tuesday brought an interview with an anonymous Egyptian diplomat ostensibly in the know that Mitchell is to visit his half-native Lebanon in April in order to jump-start Lebanese-Israeli peace talks, practically dead since 1983. The Daily Star took the story seriously enough to put it on the front page (although that’s not saying an awful lot).

 

 

Looking at the political reality in the region, which I just observed at closed range two weeks ago, the prospect of Mitchell arriving in Beirut with a message of peace between Lebanon and Israel seems just as likely as a heat wave in Copenhagen tomorrow. In fact, it looks a lot more like a desperate attempt to plant a feel-good story in the press by those who have been taken aback by the results of the Gaza war on regional politics. And I am not talking about the killing of hundreds of civilians here (that can hardly surprise anyone anymore) – I am talking about the sheer hatred towards Israel in all quarters of the Arab populations which has just about sidelined the Saudi-Egyptian axis. How on earth would Mitchell be able to walk into Beirut with as much as a mention of talks with Israel on his lips?

 

 

In Beirut, I got the sense, from talking to a wide range of Shiite and other observers, that, more likely, we are heading for another round of confrontation if not in the short then in the medium term. Sadly, Hassan Nasrallah’s promise of revenge for Imad Mughniyeh last week and Ehud Barak’s even more visceral response yesterday only add to the evidence that the fruits of Gaza (you know, those grapes of wrath) could well be picked in Lebanon. True, Hizbollah have elections to win in June. But there are different strains of thinking in the movement, different priorities and different objectives. And the group that believes in the ultimate battle with the Zionist enemy above everything else has just been given one thousand three hundred and fourteen (so says the Ministry of Health in Gaza) more good reasons to fight in the last month. So to the wishful thinkers in the region who believe that nothing has changed (or, as a newscast asked me on Danish TV last week, that “the slate has been wiped clean” between the US and the Arab world with Obama coming to power), someone should break it to them that there’s been a war, and that there could be well another one around the corner.

 

 

 

Two pieces on the ‘Iran-Hamas’ discussion

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had time in the new year to reflect on the most important topic in the discussion of the Middle East right now: the Israel-Hamas War in Gaza. Fortunately, other people have had time! I recommend the following pieces:

Daniel Luban criticizes the neoconservative and Israeli statements and narratives of Hamas being an ‘Iranian proxy’ to drive home the point that it is not. In these days of all-out propaganda warfare against Iran and actual all-out war on the Palestinian people, this is important reading.

However, with her recent brilliant piece on ‘Israel, Gaza War, Return of “Emboldened Iran” and Obama’, Farideh Farhi places the discussion in a broader perspective. Instead of dwelling on what has become an art in itself – i.e. to determine, weigh and define the nature of Iranian influence on Hamas – Farhi maintains that the recent linking of the Gaza events with ‘the Iran threat’ is part of the general crisis over how to deal with Iran. Farhi also treats an extremely interesting aspect: the Basiji ‘Gaza volunteer’ sit-in in Tehran’s airport. The ‘volunteers’ are demanding to be sent to Palestine, but the state refuses (just as it seems to be restraining Hezbollah). Why? Read Farhi’s article!

More to follow soon!

Obama, Iran and Iraq

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

[Updated]

Admittedly, there are many confusing, contradictory and ambiguous signs of where US-Iran relations are heading right now. On the one hand, you have both oppositional and conservative pro-regime forces in Iran together with left-wing commentators in the US saying that nothing will change, and that it might even get worse as Obama will gradually be forced to increase pressure on the Iranians. On the other hand, there are optimistic signs. Take this comment for instance: Robert Dreyfuss argues that the reason the US-Iraq Security Pact has finally been drafted and is up for approval is Iranian support. Even though it is ‘not a done deal’, the fact that the drafters could reach this stage points, in Dreyfuss’ opinion, to Iranians’ giving it the green light. If this is so, it is of course a sign of willingness to cooperate with a US under Obama:

“The election of Barack Obama changed Iran’s calculus, and so Iran decided, very subtly, to shift to neutral on the pact. As a result, many politicians in Iraq who are either influenced by Iran or who are outright Iranian agents now support the pact. It’s an important sign from Tehran to Obama that they’re willing to work with the United States” writes Dryfuss.

On the other hand, Dreyfuss reminds us that Iran is not ‘thrilled’ over US forces staying for another three years; and that ‘if things get sour’, Iran can again start supporting militant insurgent groups like Sadr’s forces.

Apparently, Ayatollah Shahrudi – head of the Iranian Judiciary and considered a close (yet somewhat ‘moderate’) aide to Khamene‘i – has endorsed the pact, stating that “security and stability is in the interest of the regional nations”… Now, I guess the next question would be: does this mean Khamene‘i agrees with this point? Even though Khamene‘i sometimes drop his veil of ‘neutrality’ in domestic factual disputes and sometimes deliberately parts from his favorite image of ‘impartiality’, Khamene‘i doesn’t need to state his views. This is why the Iranian foreign policy line appears so opaque or engimatic to many observers: since Khamene‘i is not a President but a fatherly ‘Guardian’ / supreme-authority-behind-the-curtains, he can just let various aides and associates voice different policy options or views without us knowing which one is actually going to be implemented.

Thus, I see this as yet another classic example of Iran’s two-pronged strategy of suddenly airing surprisingly moderate/constructive/appeasing signals (enhanced when stated by conservative figures and clerics) – while letting other officials repeat the same old songs against the Global Arrogance of Imperialist Powers etc. Nonetheless, I cannot help labelling this as a comparatively ‘suprising’ and relatively ‘conciliatory’ statement.

On a relevant note: it seems Iran has ‘accepted’ Turkey playing the possible role of mediator between US and Iran if Obama is to go ahead with talks. Nonetheless, this acceptance was of course followed by usual skepticism from Tehran:

… the reality is that the issue and problems between Iran and the United States go beyond the usual political problems between two states”; “Some 30 years after the Islamic Revolution, the US still has a negative stance towards Iranians,” the Iranian spokesman said.

US presidential elections and Iran-US relations

by Rasmus Christian Elling

The following is a slightly modified manuscript for my talk at the seminar ‘How Will the Next President Change US Policy in The Middle East?’ at The University of Copenhagen, October 22, 2008. Apart from myself, Sasha Polakow-Suransky (Associate Editor, Foreign Affairs), Sune Haugbolle (Associate Professor, Uni. of Copenhagen) and Bjoern Moeller (Senior Researcher, DIIS) participated.

Of course, we all know how the US elections turned out, and the ‘if’ part of this writing is now only of historic interest. Nonetheless, I hope that the glimpses of optimism in this piece – and in so many other op-eds written these days – will not one day be regarded as historical naivety.

What effect will the US presidential elections have on Iran-US relations?

First of all, we need to discuss what kind of change is actually conceivable. If you look at this question from a perspective of whether or not Iran will be ‘contained’, back down from its nuclear program and renounce its regional ambitions – then the US elections will probably not change anything. Iran will continue to have a nuclear energy program and not much can change that; furthermore, one might argue, Iran is in its good right to have such a program. Iran has accepted treaties and protocols that countries armed with nuclear weapons like Israel and Pakistan have never signed. And even though there are still many critical questions and even though there have been signs that the Iranians, at least until 2003, ran a covert arms program, the basic fact will not change: Iran is entitled to a nuclear program and the broad Iranian populace supports what is seen not only as a natural right but a question of national sovereignty.

I think that the most sensible thing we can hope for is to reach an agreement with the Iranians that clearly respect this right at the same time as maintaining and expanding IAEA access to the Iranian sites in question. In other words, the best we can hope for in this regard is to reach an agreeable level of transparency: to be able to monitor Iranian nuclear activities and thus hopefully prevent a conversion of the civil program to a military one.

This is not a defeatist view – this is a realist view. It is an acknowledgment of the fact that economic sanctions so far have not worked sufficiently. It is recognition of the fact that Chinese and Russian interests in Iran are not lessening– they’re expanding; and that we cannot expect Moscow and Beijing to support tougher sanctions on such a vital trading partner. It is recognition of the fact that a US military intervention – whether a limited air strike or a regular invasion – is now virtually out of question. Even if it was to drum up a minimum of international support, the US does not have the resources to achieve its goals in Iran by military power. The sense of patriotism that permeates an Iranian population, which sees itself as having 2,500 years of continuous history as an independent nation-state, means that whether or not the majority is dissatisfied with the current rulers, they would rally behind the government if the country were attacked. Furthermore, American forces are already tied up in two major armed conflicts that have stretched US resources to its limits.

Thus, to sum up: even though the next US president will probably not, at least on the rhetorical level, take the option completely off the table, military intervention should be out of the question; in their current form, sanctions will not work; and most importantly: none of these will change the ambitions of the Iranian government – or the view of the broad populace. Again, this is not an apologetic view: I personally think nuclear technology is potentially dangerous and problematic, whether in the hands of Iranians, Indians, Americans or Swedes. No doubt it is dangerous in Iranian hands too. However, I guess everybody here can agree on an answer if we were to choose between a completely opaque and secretive Iranian nuclear program and a relatively transparent one.

Yet, I think there is some reason to be fairly optimistic. There is no doubt that any president of the United States is constrained by pressure from interest groups and that no one – neither Obama nor McCain – could move swiftly towards a solution on the Iran issue. There is no doubt that any US politician is extremely wary of appearing too appeasing or too ‘soft’ when it comes to the question of Iran’s nuclear program. However, there is a slight chance that a moderate and sensible president – if he was to be supported or allowed at home by his constituencies, the congress and other key entities – might just be able to lead the way towards dialogue. A pragmatic and prudent president might, for example, follow up on Condoleeza Rice’s recently floated idea of re-opening a diplomatic mission to Tehran, 30 years after Islamists occupied the US embassy. And that would truly, in my opinion, change the picture.

But then again, I feel I have to be optimistic. Because the alternative to dialogue is that nothing will change: Iran will continue a secretive path towards nuclear goals, the Islamist rulers will continue supporting anti-American forces in the region and Ahmadinejad will continue his ludicrous statements about Israel. Psychological warfare and tension-creating propaganda will continue to flow thick from both sides and nobody will benefit. Instead of bringing in Iran as a potentially constructive discussion-partner and maybe even a beneficial working partner in, say, rebuilding and stabilizing Afghanistan and Iraq, hostile relations will result in more and bloodier proxy conflicts. And yes, uncontained, that might eventually lead to a direct confrontation that will have catastrophic repercussions for the world economy, for regional security and for innocent civilians all over the world – and in Iran in particular.

How about the Iranians? I think it is time to correct certain views. First of all, Iranians are not suicidal fanatics and they are not ruled by a small cult of messianic maniacs, the way some would like us to think; Iran is governed by many different and competing centers of power; there are rational voices both within the ruling elite and in the opposition; secondly, Iran will not start a nuclear war – indeed Iran has never threatened to do so; and, thirdly, despite layers of ideological rhetoric, the Iranians have for many years put the global mission of Khomeini’s revolution after national interests when shaping their foreign policy. Thus, there have been many signs – in particular during the pro-reformist presidency of Khatami, but also during the presidency of Ahmadinejad – that the Iranians are sincerely interested in dialogue and direct negotiations with the US. Let us for example not forget that the real leader in Iran – Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamene‘i – in 2003 allegedly proposed to drop support for Islamist terror groups and to provide full transparency of Iran’s nuclear program in return for US disbanding Mujahedin-e Khalq and accepting Iranian nuclear ambitions. Let us not forget the numerous attempts at positive engagement, bilateral cooperation and good will gestures during the presidencies of Rafsanjani and Khatami. And let us not forget that the beef, to use a colloquialism, is between the political rulers of Tehran and Washington, not the people; and that caught in between as a hostage there is a young and vibrant generation of Iranians longing for freedom, progress and equality.

Even if we choose to see the road to rapprochement as a cynical plot conceived in Tehran and aimed at portraying US as defeated and forced to sit at the table with the Iranians – it might not be such a bad thing after all. It might, as pessimists will claim, give an immediate triumphal effect for Ahmadinejad on the domestic scene:  i.e., that he was the one who was able to finally force the Great Satan to recognize Iranian ambitions. However, just like Ahmadinejad’s other rash statements and overconfident maneuvers, it will certainly backfire. Direct dialogue with the archenemy will alienate radical anti-Western forces in Iran and open the way for more far-reaching demands of rapprochement from the opposition and the broad populace; it will open the stored-up hopes for re-joining the global community and liberate Iran from its status as a pariah. Combined with dwindling oil prices, the Iranian government will eventually be forced to talk to and work out a sort of understanding with the US and Europe. And all this can lead the way to a broad bargain that includes mutual recognition of ambitions and goals, talks on the region in general and finally – and what should be the most import goal – talks on the deplorable situation of human rights and the lack of democracy in Iran. One could indeed argue that this is a good chance to do what Nixon did with China in the early 70s and a good chance to get an even better deal than the US recently got with North Korea.

However, I think that the US should not ‘settle’ for that. Indeed, an Iran-US rapprochement could be a constructive move towards adjusting the US to the slowly but surely emerging multi-polar world and its limited horizon of US options. This is a world in which you cannot introduce democracy and human rights at gunpoint and in which wholesale enforcements of cultural norms and across-the-board manipulation of internal affairs in sovereign states is no longer the accepted way ahead. It might be a hard pill to swallow – but it may also be a good chance for America to re-discover and re-invent itself and its role in the world.

Such a move requires that the next US president stop doing Iranian hardliners the huge favor of presenting America as their biggest existential threat. If the US were to drop its thinly veiled threats of regime change it would not only strip the Iranian leaders of their number one claim to legitimacy; it would also leave the Islamic Republic with one main enemy: itself. The Iranian people has more than one hundred years of democratic struggle on its CV and the Iranian people will change the authoritarian system when internal circumstances and conditions allow them to. Right now, one of the biggest reasons for the militarization of Iranian politics is the threat from Washington. It is giving the current Iranian rulers an opportunity to clamp down on advocates of human rights, the women’s movement, the student movement, the workers movement, regime-critical journalists and proponents of ethnic and religious minority rights. Without foreign intervention and without a foreign bogeyman, Iran will be left alone with its mounting economical catastrophe, severe factional infighting and 30-40 million discontented young Iranians. Indeed, Tehran will have more than enough on its hands and Iranian rulers will eventually be forced to reform the system and accept constitutional and democratic changes along the lines of what Iranians themselves define as proper for their own future. It is actually quite straightforward: instead of presenting itself as a threat, the US should again become a source of inspiration.

So, in that sense, this is a crucial moment in US-Middle East history. If a moderate and dialogue-seeking politician with an understanding of the challenges of the new world and with a renewed respect and consideration for rival states and their populations is elected, I dare say that conditions for improving US-Iran relations will be in place. Of course, we should remain perfectly aware that it takes much more than willingness to talk in order to ameliorate US-Iran relations. In the last 30 years since the Iranian occupation of the US embassy and in the last 55 years since the CIA-sponsored overthrow of the Iranian Prime Minister Mosaddeq, many wounds have been inflicted on both sides, and it will take much more than diplomatic talks to patch them up. The road to dialogue, rapprochement and normalization will be beset by criticism and attempts to hinder progress from hard-liners on both sides, by frustrating stalemates and by much uncertainty. We might even see an escalation in the war of words before it gets better. However, dialogue will be worth it.

Last but not least, I would like to repeat that the ultimate goal with a US-Iran dialogue should be to enhance world security, to promote democratic values, to improve the lives of civilians and to protect human rights. In other words, the ultimate goal should not be to bring Iranian oil and gas back on the world market – it should be to help the Iranian people, the Middle East, the World and the role of US within it.

So, it goes without saying that it takes more than a new President to better relations – a change in attitude and policy is needed. However, with this reality check in place, I must say that I cannot help being optimistic. Even though the road ahead is extremely difficult and can be full of ugly surprises, this might actually be the window of opportunity that moderates and progressives on both sides have been hoping for. Let’s hope it is.