Foreign Policy to Defend Democracy

Democratic societies whose public servants conduct a foreign policy based on “good guys” vs. “bad guys” undermine their own long-term security. The attitude of a state toward another state should rest on an assessment of the counterpart’s behavior, not its race, religion, or ideology. Perhaps needless to say, such an approach to foreign policy formulation hardly exists in the modern world.

States may rationally select partners for many reasons, and having a foreign policy based on case-by-case judgment, i.e., with no permanent partners at all, is by no means the least rational basis for foreign policy, though it takes a very clear-thinking statesperson to guide such a policy. Possibly the most incompetent and self-defeating (taking “self” to refer not to the leader but the society) foreign policy of all is the typical one, based on old prejudices and habits from an era long gone. To discern the difference, a logical method of distinguishing classes of foreign policy behavior would be a nice tool, if we could but design it. Hard as it may be to identify any real-world regimes with such a tool for identifying other regimes worth supporting, a simple continuum from selfish behavior to behavior for the common good would make a solid, if not revolutionary, foundation.

In the complex arena of foreign policy, doing harm is almost as common (and vastly more costly than) doing good, implying that there is sufficient room for improvement to anticipate real value even from a simple tool. If we can accept foreign policy based on the assumption that a general minimization of harm done would, over time, benefit us all, then we are set to move forward to a definition of broad categories of behavior that should be viewed as harmful or beneficial to the common good regardless of the identity of the actor.

Debates over exceptions will of course explode the instant one attempts to categorize specific behaviors as harmful to the common good and thus warranting opposition, but at least a default attitude (e.g., “war is bad”) would serve to make one hesitate and demand justification. In the case of good behavior by an adversary, the burden of proof would be put on one’s own leaders to justify any inclination they might have to oppose good behavior simply because done by the wrong regime. In addition, having the scale at hand would make it easier to notice and harder to “ignore” a shift in behavior. The continuum also offers an easy way to promote the common good: attacking the bad behavior of adversaries need not be the focus of foreign policy; a great step forward could be made simply by applying the continuum to one’s own behavior, to see if “we” are truly setting an example for the world.

Several common behaviors suggest themselves immediately as harmful to the common good:

  • colonization;

  • aggression surpassing the scope of a threat;

  • collective punishment;

  • preventive war;

  • denying autonomy to a disliked and marginalized minority;

  • putting reporters on trial in secret;

  • arresting anyone for “insulting” a leader.

Several other common behaviors seem to deserve immediate support:

  • nuclear transparency;

  • obeying international law.

This short set of criteria already suffices to generate a good deal of thought…and no little embarrassment. Consider the example of how the West might tackle the problem of finding partners in the Mideast. Israel is guilty of colonization of the West Bank, multiple cases of aggression beyond the scope of any threat, nuclear ambiguity, and collective punishment of the residents of Gaza. Saudi Arabia is guilty of multiple cases of aggression beyond the scope of the threat (or perhaps “preventive war). Turkey is guilty of denying autonomy to a disliked minority, putting reporters on trial in secret, and arguably for arresting people for insulting the leader. Iran was guilty of nuclear ambiguity.

Are the charges accurate? Are there justifications? To what extent are the categories of equivalent seriousness? Given the ease with which one could find similar guilt among leading Western democracies, is the test so tough that no powerful state can pass? What constitutes passing?

That last question leads to two particular cases that stand out not for the nature of the states’ behavior so much as the change. Iran has, or at least one may so hope, abandoned nuclear ambiguity (in stark contrast to Israel). Turkey has, over the last year, shifted from a policy of democratization and inclusion of Turkish Kurds in its political system (note that the former has little meaning without the latter) to a policy of repressing the Kurds by not just fighting their extremists but also by marginalizing their politicians and more broadly restricting freedom of the press and freedom of expression for the whole Turkish population.

These two dramatic cases raise the issue of whether current regime behavior or the direction of change is more important. Given the extreme differences in the development of civilized governance within a given state over time and across states at any particular time, it might well be more logical to emphasize the direction of change. Given the need for progress in governance to evolve from within a society than be imposed from without, emphasizing the direction of change is also more likely to have practical value, particularly if the international community both practices what it preaches and reacts quickly to changes.

Obama’s decision to avoid receiving Erdogan at the end of March 2016, months after Erdogan’s shift toward repression and centralization became clear to the world, might thus be judged a good move but too little, too late. It may well be imagined that Erdogan has by now become so committed to his new policy of repression that a factional realignment of forces within his political party can offer much hope of setting Turkey back on the path to modernization, democratization, and secular inclusivity.

The Western call for new anti-Iranian sanctions for testing missiles in the context of the nuclear agreement is even more curious, sending the nearly unmistakable signal that despite the huge concession Iran made in settling the nuclear issue in the absence of a similar requirement being levied on Israel, the West remains committed to subjecting Iran to discriminatory rules. Is there any other state in the world that has been ordered by the West to forego the testing of missiles? More pointedly, are Saudi Arabia and Israel required to sign up to the rules concerning missiles that Iran is being told to follow? Of course, one might protest that “Iran is different,” but this argument is like pouring water into a wicker basket in view of the aggressive foreign policy of both Saudi Arabia (preventing Bahraini democratization, internationalizing the Yemeni civil war, pursuing regime change in Syria) and Israel (invading Lebanon, retaining the Golan Heights, imprisoning the people of Gaza in a ghetto).

The real issue in Tel Aviv and Riyadh is that, being both essentially fundamentalist religious regimes and expansionist nationalist regimes, they do not welcome the rising competition from yet another state playing the same game. For Tel Aviv and Riyadh, the issue is clear: they desire neither the military competition for regional influence nor the direct ideological challenge to their dreams of religious empire. For Western regimes, the Mideast confusion of competing fundamentalist religious and sectarian interests complicating and aggravating aggressive nationalist claims and counterclaims is—if addressed as such—impossibly arcane. To deal with this problem, Western regimes tend to simplify it by assigning essentially meaningless labels that facilitate decision-making while ensuring that those decisions will be counterproductive. In an effort to evade the cultural complexities of the Mideast, Western regimes thus become captive to those complexities, making themselves servants of whatever cultural group they happen to label as “friend,” for “friend” as a political term among states means “looking the other way,” i.e., renouncing your right to think for yourself and criticize your counterpart when you perceive improper behavior. A Western state should never support or oppose a Mideast state because of the religion or sect of the Mideastern society; the Western state’s attitude should instead be grounded in an open-eyed assessment of the nature of the behavior in question. Making this assessment with a carefully defined set of behavioral criteria in mind could help Western leaders to distinguish more accurately between beneficial and harmful behavior.

How the West should react to violence is the obvious case-in-point. The constant need for Western states to decide whether to support or oppose the endless Mideast acts of violence in the name of Shi’i, Jewish, or Sunni Salafi interests will always provoke a pointless and useless debate as long as the underlying question is: “Which sect’s acts of violence should the West support?” From the long-term perspective of Western democratic societies, the answer in the abstract is “None.” As the events from 9/11 to the late March 2016 terrorist attack in Brussels should make evident, sectarian violence is not in the interest of Western societies. Indeed, even if we have forgotten the horrors of the 16th century religious wars in France or the Thirty Years’ War a century later, we should have learned the lesson from the KKK and Kristalnacht.

But Western politicians try endlessly to distinguish “justifiable” violence by a regime or private group by looking first and foremost at the sectarian identity of the guilty. Over time, that approach accomplishes two things: it exposes Western politicians as hypocritical (thereby weakening the West’s credibility as a moral leader) and establishes a dynamic that degrades the foundations of Western democracy by setting into motion a cycle of cynicism and violence. Bad behavior, short-sighted behavior, brutal behavior, emotion-based rather than thoughtful behavior is always more readily copied than the other kind. The world is watching the steady contagion of calls by politicians for sectarian policies (building walls, patrolling urban regions based on the sect of the inhabitants, banning political parties that support the political integration of minorities); collective punishment (by mistreating refugees, stripping minority regions of political rights, suicide bombers or wars against cities); drones to kill presumed but untried and perhaps unidentified opponents (to date, in “other” countries). In each case, society goes down a slippery slope: the principle is at first violated in some seemingly benign manner (e.g., racial targeting) or extreme manner presumably done as an exception (e.g., killing a known and identified individual combatant posing a direct and immediate danger) that then leads both to less benign or more common violations while also quickly establishing a precedent. It may take generations for a leading world power to convince the world to accept a new principle (banning slavery; allowing women to participate in politics; religious freedom; the right to criticize the leader; open trials; making such terror weapons as poison gas, white phosphorous, barrel bombs, nuclear warheads illegal; granting autonomy to repressed minorities). Popularizing barbaric forms of behavior that violate accepted moral and legal principles, in sad contrast, happens effortlessly and almost instantly, with unpredictable but reliably negative consequences for progressive democratic societies. A world of wars against cities, repression of minorities, and the freedom to use whatever weapon one can design or buy is a world in which dictators and extremists flourish: only societies aspiring to peace and civil liberties suffer.

Democratic societies need to impose upon themselves a higher standard of behavior–particularly in the implementation of foreign policy–not just in some idealistic quest to make the world a better place but as the core of self-defense.

Offer Iran a “Moderate” Deal

When talking about Iran, U.S. political labels merely confuse Americans. Rouhani will not act moderate because he “is” moderate but because and only because the U.S. offers Iran a “moderate” deal so couched as to be of clear benefit to Iran. Continue reading

Washington Is Empowering Iran

Washington pundits may not understand Iran, but they are right about one issue: Tehran does pose a real challenge to the U.S.-centric global political system. Unfortunately for the U.S., Washington does not understand the nature of the challenge, and its response is just empowering Tehran. (Clues: it’s not about nuclear arms or religion.)

Washington tough guys stand facing Iran with that “deer in the headlights” look. Terrified of losing World War II all over again, they frankly have no clue about what Tehran is up to. The analogy to WWII is critical: pity any state stupid enough to launch a blitzkrieg against the U.S. They would be wiped out. The U.S. today can fight and win a WWII-style war against any conceivable enemy without even getting a Congressional appropriation.

But the idea of Ahmadinejad as the new Hitler is just a Netanyahu sound bite, slyly selected because he knows Americans well enough to realize that Americans are still, after all these years, obsessed with Hitler and utterly confused about the world that actually exists today, almost a century later. Raving about blitzkriegs may be a brilliant strategy for conning Congress, but it has nothing to do with Iran’s challenge, which is far more sophisticated, subtle, and enduring.  More seriously, Iran’s challenge will be played out on a battlefield most Washington cold warriors (or “empire-builders,” if you prefer a more current epithet) hardly know exists, where victory will require the careful and sustained use of “weapons” the tough guys either ignore or sneer at. Their ignorance is America’s peril.

In a revealing critique of U.S. misunderstanding of Iran, The Race for Iran website quoted School of Oriental and African Studies academic Arshin Adib-Moghaddam as follows:

there is no over-dependency on the west that would yield a legitimacy crisis (as in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt and Zine al-Abidine Ben-Ali’s Tunisia and under the shah) and there is no subservience to Israeli demands. The Iranian government’s strident emphasis on “national independence” continues to garner support within Iranian society. [Arshin Adib-Moghaddam in The Guardian 11/22/11 as quoted in Flynt and Hillary Leverett’s The Race for Iran 11/28/11.]

While Adib-Moghaddam’s point concerned the value of independence for Iranian stability, Iran’s avoidance of “over-dependence” on the West also goes to the heart of Iran’s challenge to the U.S.-centric global political system. Washington, provoked endlessly by Netanyahu and his crowd, sees the Iranian challenge as a military threat to be smashed down. Washington is correct that Iran poses a threat, but it is not military: it is ideological.

Were the Iranian ideological challenge along the lines of a “Shi’i crescent,” one might be somewhat concerned or just laugh. But to the degree that the Iranian ideological challenge amounts to an invitation to every other country on earth to stand up for national independence from U.S.-centric globalization, the Iranian challenge is important because of its internal logic (why should other countries accept discriminatory rules thought up in Washington?), its attractiveness to…every other country, and the increasing ability of other countries to take assert their desire for independence.

Washington’s demands for obedience fall flat in a post-Cold War world where no traditional enemy exists, where threats require reasoning together rather than the use of force, and where Washington’s uncooperative attitude (undercutting efforts to protect the environment, punishing countries for wanting freedom to find their own paths, touting democracy when convenient) frequently makes it the obstacle to problem resolution rather than the leader. Iran, meanwhile, wins simply by pointing out the obvious: the U.S.-centric world is really not being managed very well. Washington unfortunately does not have the diplomatic skill to put Tehran to the test by calling its bluff and demanding that it offer constructive solutions. The more Washington discriminates against Tehran while pushing around those countries that do offer constructive solutions to problems Washington cannot solve, the better Tehran looks. The rest of the world is not faced with choosing between the U.S. and Iran but between unnecessary subservience to a U.S. leader that is faltering and the idea of independence.

Washington’s treatment of this challenge as a threat rather than an opportunity to reform its outdated “Cold-War superpower” behavior is what makes Iran a significant player. Washington is only undermining U.S. national security by allowing Tehran to portray it as the global opponent of national aspirations for what might be called “state democracy.” It is ironic and self-defeating for Washington to pose as the champion of democracy for individuals while acting as the self-imposed leader–by force as needed–of an increasingly centralized global political order based on rules written not by democratic consensus but in Washington: Washington touts democracy for individuals but harshly punishes states that aspire to inter-state equality. The blatant discrimination of Washington’s nuclear rules for Israel and Tehran or its denial of democratic rights for Palestinians only play into Tehran’s hands. The more rigid Washington’s self-centered behavior, the more Russia, China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, and everyone else will start thinking that system challenger Iran has a point.

Turkish Opportunities

If supported by Washington, could Ankara transform Mideast political dynamics away from reliance on force to resolve all disputes?
Turkey is emerging onto the regional stage as an independent actor as it simultaneously begins to face up to its Muslim roots and attempts to strengthen democracy at home – a tall but commendable order and perhaps a set of goals that can only be achieved in unison. Domestically, Turkey faces the sensitive challenges of recognizing Muslim roots without frightening modernizing sectors of the society concerned about civil rights, of strengthening traditionally weak civilian control over a traditionally uncontrollable and dictatorial military, and of integrating the Kurds politically while freeing them culturally. Difficult as these reforms may be, it is hard to see how Ankara can meet the international challenge of replacing client status toward the U.S. with genuine foreign policy independence unless it can unite Turkish society, and it is hard to see how Ankara can make the case that it deserves to have its new foreign policy of friendship toward all taken seriously unless it practices an analogous domestic policy of political inclusion of and cultural freedom for all social groups.
If these are inspiring times for Turks, Ankara’s new policy represents an historic opportunity for the U.S. to promote a moderate Mideast middle to serve as a buffer between the violence-prone forces currently setting the Mideast political agenda. The political coin currently carries questions on each side:
1.)    Can Ankara explain its new foreign policy in a way that alleviates Washington tendencies to interpret any independent thinking as a threat?
2.)    Can Washington find the maturity and vision to help Ankara in its very ambitious effort to find positive-sum solutions to Mideast conflicts?
Washington has demonstrated its inability to bring stability to the Mideast, and democracy can hardly be imposed from outside, but Washington might be able greatly to facilitate a home-grown process of cultivating both stability and democracy. With its roots in both Muslim and Western traditions, Turkey is well placed to be the catalyst of such a change.
The Mideast today is split by political fault lines separating the U.S. from Iran, Israelis from Palestinians, Israelis from those who support Palestinians, the West from jihadis. All these fault lines are characterized by the reliance by both sides on force as the primary means of resolving conflict, and nowhere is there a force counseling understanding, compromise, or—more important—the search for positive-sum solutions.
Some Mideast disputes will simply require hard compromises. In the Levant, for example, sufficient water simply does not exist, so both Israelis and Palestinians will have to accept the need to share what little there is and use less than they would like. Water, then, will require a compromise.
Other Mideast disputes, in contrast, are amenable to positive-sum solutions that hold the potential of providing real security benefits from diminishing tensions to both sides. The Iranian-Israeli nuclear dispute, for example, could be muted to mutual benefit through the incremental implementation of common standards for nuclear transparency and the regulation of nuclear arms.
As long as the political environment is bifurcated into two hostile, emotional, fearful camps with no party in the center counseling calm analysis of options, solutions are difficult to see.  Ankara today is offering a way around this impasse. Those parties interested in solutions, rather than endless chaos, should jump at the chance. Those parties who indeed favor the chaos will increasingly find themselves on the defensive if Ankara finds a way to implement its optimistic rhetoric.

U.S.-Iranian War Even If No One Wants It?

Have the international political context and the respective domestic political contexts of Iran, the U.S., and Israel placed Iran and the U.S. on a slippery slope leading to war, whether or not anyone actually wants it?
Political science theory offers an explanation of how war may occur even when neither side desires it.
Are U.S.-Iranian relations on such a path?
One can of course debate the sincerity of either Iranian or American leaders in professing that they desire peace, but even if we take both sides at their word, does a significant danger of war still exist?
The classic arms race, in which two risk-averse but security-conscious adversaries each arm because they fear the other and in the process convince the other wrongly that they have aggressive intent is one obvious path toward undesired war. Both Tehran’s effort to enhance its nuclear capabilities while minimizing the transparency of its program and Washington’s massing of offensive naval capacity in the Persian Gulf and offensive aerial capacity in Saudi Arabia and Israel are ratcheting up feelings of insecurity on each side and empowering violence-prone politicians. Countervailing steps, be they presidential addresses in Cairo or Turkish/Brazilian efforts to find compromises, seem far from sufficient to outweigh this constant pouring of gasoline on the fire of mutual national security concerns.
An arms race creates an incendiary environment for an undesired clash. Another criterion tosses sparks on the tinder: the degree of “true believer” attitudes, i.e., an orientation toward ideology rather than practical conflict resolution that would impede willingness to search for a genuine positive-sum compromise. If to this dangerous mix is added an actual preference for violence, then war seems predictable. In the diagram, the red octant represents such a situation.
Toward War No One Wants

The Political Behavior Model illustrates a world described by three factors:

  1. Environment
  2. Ideological commitment
  3. Conflict resolution strategy.
The “challenging” extreme of the environmental axis can be viewed as representing an arms race, certainly an example of a fundamental political challenge. The three axes produce eight ideal alternative worlds or scenarios. The red octant, which one might label “war,” represents the most extreme scenario, where ideologically committed actors caught in a challenging security environment prefer to resolve disputes through violence. [For a technical review of scenario analysis, see Analyzing the Future.]
The obvious point of this theoretical construct is that it points out ways for those trying to avoid war to influence the course of events: action along any one of the three axes might suffice to alter the course of events. The question for U.S.-Iranian relations is the degree to which reality is moving toward the war scenario.
Given the continuing high level of U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf and Iran’s continuing development of nuclear capability, the military environment is if anything increasingly challenging. Israel remains under the control of factions that have historically shown themselves to be quite willing to use force and that continue vociferously to defend in public the logic of that dangerous attitude. In Iran and Israel, ideology seems strongly to influence behavior, with religious fundamentalism and zenophobia powerful in both societies. Now the U.S. mid-term elections have emboldened a faction likely to place unusual, for Americans, emphasis on ideology rather than pragmatic problem-resolution and that will be very willing to rely on force.  Along all three axes, the U.S.-Iranian relationship appears to be moving toward the war scenario.
This trend does not make war inevitable; indeed, general recognition of the rising danger might make politicians more sober. However, this analysis suggests that multiple, separate pressures are currently pushing politicians in the direction of war, a situation that will take great commitment to resist. With political careers in all three countries invested in looking tough regardless of the risk, where such commitment might be found is unclear. The easy way forward thus appears to be to continue sliding toward a war that perhaps not a single individual–Iranian, American, or Israeli– actually wants.

Neo-Con Zionist Opposes Nuclear Transparency

The extremes to which American neo-cons go in their pro-Zionist bias needs to be understood by all patriotic Americans. In Elliott Abrams’ own words:

the United States ought not have voted for the resolution that called on Israel to open its nuclear facilities to inspection. This is unacceptable. 

According to one of the most infamous members of the neo-con faction, it is “unacceptable” to support nuclear transparency! Mr. Abrams has obviously spent far too many decades in Washington. Perhaps he should do some traveling (no, not to extremist gatherings in Israel). Nuclear nonproliferation is one of the scourges of the modern world. Opposing nuclear transparency undermines the core of the NPT. Transparency is precisely what we have been pushing Iran to accept all these years!
Abrams made his revealing remark in Israel for print in the Hebrew-language news media as part of an attempt to undermine Obama Administration foreign policy [Coteret 6/2/10].
Need I point out the obvious relevance of this neo-con perspective for the debate over the harm done to the U.S. national security by having an alliance with Israel (as long, that is, as Israel remains under the thumb of its militarist faction)?

Turkey: Next Steps vis-a-vis Israel

Ankara faces some hard decisions in its effort to alter Israeli behavior. No easy solution exists, but both diplomatic and military options worth exploring are available, should Ankara wish to go beyond rhetoric and take the kind of actions that will earn Tel Aviv’s respect. Ankara’s best option would seem to be the designing of a common position with Moscow and Tehran. Ankara may even persuade Washington to join.
Washington has already made it clear that it will not defend its own citizens. It long ago excused Tel Aviv’s attack on the U.S.S. Liberty, would not even protect a former presidential candidate (Cynthia McKinney) when she was arrested by Israel for joining the June 2009 flotilla to Gaza, and is evidently paying no attention to the murder by Israel (with, reportedly, five shots!) of an American on this week’s flotilla. It is hard for Washington to stand up to Tel Aviv when Tel Aviv’s bullying seems to be Washington’s model, as suggested by the similarities between Israeli treatment of Palestinians and U.S. treatment of Iraqis and Afghanis as well as the copying by Washington of the Israeli right’s anti-Iran propaganda.
Ankara is now being subjected to the same treatment that the U.S. has received, but Turkey’s new leaders—Erdogan, Gul, Davutoglu—appear to have more pride than any the U.S. has been able to find this century. The Turkish leaders do not seem prepared to kowtow. Those Turkish leaders claim to be working for a new type of politics. According to Erdogan [Today’s Zaman, 6/4/10], “This is to stop bloodshed and bring peace to the region. We are not after fame. We just want humanity, law and justice.” So Ankara has a problem: exactly what can it do in response to Israeli bullying?
Ankara’s first move was immediately to make an official protest to the U.N., with the result that Ban Ki-moon is now negotiating with the concerned parties his proposal of an independent investigation  [Hurriyet 6/6/10]. Its second move was to send military transports to Israel, successfully demanding the release of all Turkish citizens from the flotilla [Coteret 6/2/10].
Clearly, these two moves, while impressive in comparison with the dithering West, still do not come close to making up for Israel’s killing of peaceful civilians. It may be worth noting, for those confused, that the raging debate over the precise actions of these civilians when Israeli soldiers attacked by air under the cover of darkness completely misses the point: they were behaving peacefully until attacked like any normal people before being mugged.
What might be next?
Rhetoric. Ankara is trying the rhetorical approach, but virtually no one seems to be listening, and Tel Aviv has demonstrated fairly clearly that it understands only “the language of force.”
Diplomacy. Ankara is also laudably trying the diplomatic approach. The U.N. responded to Ankara by calling for an investigation, though it is doubtful that any real pressure will be brought on Tel Aviv to cooperate. Cairo has opened its closed border to a few Gazans, at least temporarily, but essentially remains a partner of Tel Aviv in oppressing Gaza, and British U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant focused on the core issue [UNMID 6/1/10], stating:

the events cannot be seen in isolation. They show clearer than ever that Israel’s restrictive access to Gaza must be lifted.

No evidence so far suggests that Britain intends to take any action to back those words up.  UN Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs Oscar Fernandez-Taranco also termed Israel’s Gaza blockade “unacceptable,” though again without any indication of action to back up those words [UNMID 6/1/10].  Obama’s most recent remarks appear designed to split the difference between the Israeli nighttime attack and massacre of flotilla members and the effort to deliver medicine to Gaza were mere differences of opinion and on the same moral plane.
One diplomatic move that Ankara may perhaps now be considering is upgrading its ties with both Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas. Such a move would catch attention, but Ankara would surely be punished by Washington and perhaps as well by conservative Arab dictatorships that it does not necessarily wish to irritate. More to the point, aside from angering and provoking Tel Aviv extremists, it is not clear what impact such a move—akin to, say, Switzerland in 1940 demanding the liberation of the Jews from the Warsaw ghetto–might have on the lives of Gazans. Nevertheless, Erdogan has already hinted at something along these lines, pointing out that Hamas won the last Palestinian election (in 2006) [Hurriyet 6/4/10] and adding:

I do not think that Hamas is a terrorist organization. I said the same thing to the United States. I am still of the same opinion. They are Palestinians in resistance, fighting for their own land.

Two regional diplomatic coups are potentially within reach, however. Now that Cairo has unilaterally opened its border with Gaza, Ankara should vigorously pursue an agreement with Cairo for a permanent opening. Is there anything Ankara could offer Cairo in return?
The second regional diplomatic option is to reopen nuclear discussions with Tehran pursuant of an agreement that Tehran will voluntarily choose not to exercise its legal right to enrich uranium to the 20%-level required for medical research. Although this does not directly address the Gaza issue, it would significantly strengthen Ankara’s diplomatic position by giving the whole world something it really wants. With skill, Ankara could maneuver so as to allow Moscow to share the credit; indeed, the trade-off to entice Tehran might well be the delivery of modern Russian ground-to-air missiles, enabling Moscow to take the initiative as regional peacemaker even as it earns some useful foreign exchange and minimizes the likelihood of nuclear fallout landing on its territory. The emergence of a Russian-Iranian-Turkish entente would be a Mideast game-changer that would for the first time significantly restrict Israel’s freedom of military maneuver.
Military Moves. If substantive military moves prove to constitute the only language that will have any real impact on the situation, however, what options does Ankara have short of provoking a existential threat to itself?
The obvious answer is Lebanon, which is being denied the weaponry to defend itself against not only Israeli invasions but even Israel’s regular aerial violations of Lebanon’s border. Lebanon is a struggling democracy that has been making progress recently and that certainly deserves the right to defend itself. Whether or not Ankara has the capability to alter this situation is a question that Turkish national security officials should now be asking themselves.
The second most obvious answer is one that Ankara has clearly been considering for at least the past year: upgrading security ties with Damascus. Ankara could further upgrade such ties and send Tel Aviv yet another message, but what long-term benefit Ankara would derive is uncertain. Would closer military ties with Damascus do more harm, by pulling Ankara closer to a dictatorship, than good? Would this end up constraining Ankara’s options and isolating itself? More to the point, it is not clear that either of these moves would have much immediate benefit for the people of Gaza.  It might eventually if it had a sobering impact on the Israeli people, and much sobering Israeli commentary has already been published in Israel. However, the opposite reaction, given the intensity of both political rhetoric and right wing media commentary in Israel, is also a real risk.
                                                                
The third military option is one that is already in motion: the longstanding resistance by Washington to Moscow’s desire to sell Iran S-300 ground-to-air (i.e., by definition defensive) missiles has evidently ended. The new U.N. Iran sanctions draft explicitly permits the Russian sale of these missiles, which are normally described as sufficient significantly to hinder any potential Israeli air attack (whether or not they would defend Iran against Israeli nuclear-armed cruise missiles [Timesonline 5/30/10] is less clear). Sometimes termed “controversial” by Western proponents of Israeli militarism, the sale of these missiles is in fact precisely what is needed to reassure a threatened Iran and to signal it that its interests can be accommodated—without its policy of nuclear ambiguity. Tehran has now been given something it has been denied for at least the last decade: the right to defend itself. Removing defensive missiles from the sanctions also makes the Western case more logical, by shifting the focus from an effort to humiliate Iran to an effort to prevent militarization of Iran’s nuclear technology. Thus, both sides stand to gain from such a sale. Only extremists hoping for a war against Iran and politicians in Iran, the U.S., and Israel attempting to exploit international tensions to consolidate their domestic political control lose.
Should Moscow go through with this sale, Iran would be more secure and thus have less need of its policy of nuclear ambiguity. That, in turn, would give Ankara a powerful new argument when making its case to Tehran for further compromises on the nuclear dossier. Further, it would raise the possibility of the same missiles being provided to the Lebanese government, perhaps brokered by Ankara; If Iran is entitled to defend itself, why not Lebanon?
Ankara’s immediate reaction shows impressive determination to defend its citizens and punish Israeli extremism. While its way forward is far less clear, an array of interesting options does exist, the most promising of which may be the idea of building a Russian-Turkish-Iranian entente designed to lower nuclear tensions, reassure Iran about its own national security, and send a message to the Israeli people that their current government is doing them no favors. Washington’s quiet but fundamental adjustment to its policy on Iran raises the possibility that Washington might even be persuaded to look with favor upon such a multilateral effort to lower Mideast tensions.

Iran’s Opportunity

 If Tehran plays correctly the valuable card in its hand, it has the opportunity to weaken U.S. control over the international political system at the same time that it enhances both its security and its prestige.

The unseemly haste of the Obama Administration–after Turkey and Brazil persuaded Iran to compromise–to reaffirm Washington’s “neo-con-light” policy of pressuring Iran into a humiliating submission rather than incrementally negotiating a new arrangement allowing both sides to claim partial success has given rise to the sense that America’s superpower status is being upset. With America’s claim to moral leadership shattered on the rocks of its post-9/11 hostility toward Muslims and its coddling of right-wing Israeli expansionists, its enduring military superiority nevertheless proving to be a crude and ineffective tool for achieving anything beyond destruction, and its policy-making process on all fronts (security, finance, health care, and environment) unimaginative if not self-defeating, the door is clearly open for a restructuring of the international political system.

But no obvious candidate for new leader stands waiting on the edge of the stage. No country in the world has the combination of leadership and power to replace the U.S. The question that remains, then, is whether or not a new coalition of states can overcome the obvious obstacles to stable leadership inherent in any coalition and emerge as the driving force of new thinking.
The only obvious set of candidates is a group of states with gross differences of ideology and goals who nevertheless share common concerns about the threat of a nuclear conflict against Iran. Despite their dedication, Erdogan and Lula can hardly constitute a viable coalition by themselves, and Iran remains more a problem to be resolved than a helpful partner. But if Ankara and Brazilia can persuade Tehran to follow a conciliatory line, might Moscow and Beijing decide this was a bandwagon worth riding?
So far, Tehran has shown little willingness to offer Moscow and Beijing anything in return for their help, making it hard for either capital to resist American persuasion. But Tehran could get much for compromising only a little bit more. Having already agreed to trade low- for medium-enriched uranium, it could surely agree to give up further domestic enrichment to the medical (medium) grade once it was provided with a foreign source. Tehran could also surely take some steps to persuade the IAEA that it was being fully transparent. This would in turn provide cover for Moscow and Beijing to call for a compromise solution and put their money where their mouth is by:
  1. flatly stating that they will veto any further sanctions as long as Iran meets its obligations;
  2. providing Iran with defensive missiles;
  3. urging the IAEA to lay out precise conditions Iran would have to meet to be considered fully compliant with demands for nuclear transparency;
  4. calling for the cancellation of all anti-Iranian sanctions as soon as the IAEA states it is so satisfied;
  5. focusing attention on the new plans to pursue the vision of a nuclear-free Mideast adopted by the NPT Conference.
Such a deal would require no concessions of anything Iran already has while enhancing Iran’s national security. This deal would also enhance the security of Israel by making it more difficult for Iran to move further in the direction of militarization. The deal would enhance the security of the U.S., not just by the obvious reduction in the likelihood of war, but also by facilitating bilateral talks with Iran on other issues of interest to the U.S., such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Washington could certainly recognize a good thing and make this policy its own, but if instead it remained insistent on opposing such a compromise, the result could be the emergence of a bloc with sufficient diplomatic, military, and financial clout to redesign Mideast politics.
Is there any evidence that Beijing or Moscow might be interested?
Writing in Xinhua (“Iran deserves a break“) on 5/2910, Zhai Dequan, deputy secretary general of China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, hinted that Beijing may indeed be thinking along these lines:
The recent tripartite agreement on nuclear-material swapping among Iran, Turkey and Brazil shows that influential countries other than major Western powers have started helping resolve sensitive global issues.
Such efforts should be applauded and encouraged, especially because last year, US President Barack Obama said that instead of depending on America alone, other countries, too, should try and resolve world issues.
Continuing from this delicate description of a non-American but not anti-American initiative, Zhai turned to the specifics of the situation at the moment:
Since the situation has changed, pre-planned punitive actions, too, should be altered accordingly, meaning there is no longer any rationality in imposing further sanctions on Iran“.

Non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and blocking their channels of delivery is our common objective, but we should achieve it through justice, legality, equality and rationality.

The very next day, Xinhua reported extensively on remarks made by Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani in an article which ended by quoting Larijani saying that when policy does not work, “The logical solution is to find a new way.” A report of a new Chinese loan to Iran the same day (May 29) furthers the impression that China will oppose a new round of sanctions at this time.
Tehran seems to have a real opportunity to enhance its position, but trying to have its cake and eat it too by trading for medium-grade uranium from the West even while it continues enriching more domestically may be biting off more than it can chew. Such Iranian behavior does indeed give the impression, as Secretary Clinton has stressed, that Tehran is trying to trick Ankara and Brasilia. A new global center of moderate, flexible policy leadership could be emerging that would leave Iran in a far better position even while calming tensions and lessening the chance of war in a way that would be good for the West as well. But Iran can easily throw away its opportunity. Indeed, the public recriminations now unfolding between Tehran and Moscow are already revealing the delicacy of the current situation.
As in certain other countries, some Iranian politicians seem to relish the global stage they stride more than their own country’s national security. To the degree that Iranians genuinely want to reform the international political system, they now have a chance to be part of a broad movement with hope of achieving such reforms. But Iran will have to place the common interests of the emerging reform coalition ahead of certain specifically Iranian goals that may not resonate with their new prospective partners in order for this glimmer of a joint movement to take form and accomplish something.
The agreement with Turkey and Brazil gives Iran an honorable route to compromise…without kowtowing to the U.S. or Israel. Before, Iran was offered only humiliating, one-sided submission to Washington, but now it can play the role of peace-maker by cooperating with the spirit of its new agreement.
Iran has no hope of catching up to Israel in nuclear terms, so the possession of nuclear weapons will only undermine Iranian security. But Iranian nuclear ambiguity is a valuable card that can now be traded for real enhancement in its national security and international prestige, not to mention gaining it significant economic and technological benefits. Iran’s road to regional leadership lies not through worrying those from Saudi Arabia to Israel who are concerned about their own national security; it lies not through baiting all the West’s extremists, who have repeatedly shown in recent years what they are capable of.
The road to Iranian national security lies through giving up its policy of nuclear ambiguity and its program to enrich uranium past the low levels required for electricity generation in return for membership in a broad coalition of disparate states, all of whom agree that A) members of the NPT have the right to refine uranium and B) nuclear war is something to be avoided. Beyond the numerous immediate benefits to Iran of such a course, it would launch a process of reforming the rigid international political system by spurring the emergence of a moderate middle group of countries that want to replace the hierarchical structure of the global political system under Washington’s leadership with a more networked system that facilitates foreign policy independence. This is an outcome Tehran should be able to live with.

Digging Your Own Grave

When it comes to nuclear policy, both Washington and Tehran appear to be digging their own graves.

Now that the Western nuclear powers have taken the small but commendable step toward nuclear transparency of revealing how many nuclear warheads [All Headline News 5/27/10] they possess, the spotlight shines all the brighter on the nuclear rogue states–North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, and India—and on the suspiciously non-transparent Iran. Declaration of a global nuclear transparency standard with privileges for qualifying countries and penalties for all that fail to qualify would now be timely. Unfortunately, nothing remotely resembling a standard exists. North Korea is more-or-less ignored. Washington is rewarding India with nuclear aid and rewarding Israel with a fire hose of offensive weapons. China is about to reward Pakistan with nuclear aid. And Iran, which is only being accused, so far without any evidence, of intending to join the “nuclear rogue club” is the victim of economic warfare and under the threat of nuclear attack. Given the world’s treatment of Israel, India, and Pakistan, acquisition of nuclear arms would indeed appear to be a rational policy for Iran if its goal is increased prestige and access to Western nuclear technology!
Iran today is being treated far worse for its policy of nuclear ambiguity than any of the actual nuclear rogue states is being treated. That being the case, one can be excused for wondering why Iran insists on pursuing such a policy. In particular given its recent agreement with Ankara and Brazilia to exchange its electricity-grade uranium for medical-grade uranium, granting its new friends the courtesy of underscoring its eagerness to be transparent by going the extra mile to reassure the IAEA of its sincerity would seem the better part of valor. Tehran has demonstrated that it has the courage to stand up to Western threats; now, does it have the courage to work with global moderates to lower tensions?
That question of course ignores at least two other possibilities. The first possibility is that Tehran has no interest in actually obtaining nuclear arms but that it is absolutely committed to keeping tensions high in order to justify its harsh treatment of domestic dissidents, cement the regime’s hold on power, and find an excuse for its deplorable economic performance. The second possibility is that Tehran is actually trying to develop a hidden breakout capability, though one wonders who in Tehran can be so naïve as to think that the possession of a handful of primitive nuclear bombs would in fact increase its security. Has not Israel yet made it sufficiently plain that it stands always ready to find war the answer to its problems? Tehran seems to be getting the worst of all possible bargains – severe threats to its national security, denial of nuclear assistance, economic warfare against it that is indeed responsible for trashing its economy, and the consolidation of extreme right wing control in—at the very least–Tel Aviv.
Tehran is also risking its new-found ties with Ankara and Brazilia by its reluctance to be more forthcoming. Those moderate states may, for the moment, be pretending that they have solved the nuclear issue with last week’s agreement, but they are surely aware that their agreement, in the absence of an Iranian guarantee to halt refinement to the 20% level backed up by full transparency, does little more than crack open the door to a solution. Both Erdogan and Lula are bending over backward to give Khamenei the benefit of the doubt, but Tehran’s behavior is crassly taking advantage of their desperation for an accord; it should realize they will not stand forever alone on the dance floor while Tehran flaunts its solo routine.
If the logic of Tehran’s nuclear policy can be questioned, so can that of Washington. In a world where nuclear arms are seen as the road to global prestige and national security, Washington’s policy of proliferation to those who kneel down contains a built-in contradiction making it a dangerously short-sighted policy. Tel Aviv’s implicit, if not explicit, threat to launch a nuclear attack on Iran behind Washington’s back, even if not implemented, still greatly complicates Obama’s life. Had the old apartheid South Africa accepted Israel’s insane offer of nuclear bombs, who knows what problems that might have caused? The near miss of an India-Pakistan nuclear war around 2002 further shows the propensity of nuclear-armed subordinates to “declare independence.” Why Washington does not see the rationality of offering Tehran the deal it has made with Tokyo and Brazilia is a question all too often ignored in the U.S. One wonders if Washington intends to start opposing Brazilian uranium refinement now that Brazilia is showing some foreign policy independence…
Whatever the intent of Washington’s policy, the result is to provoke Tehran to rush forward toward a breakout capacity, to trash the Iranian economy, to empower Tehran radical nationalists, and to alienate rising moderates concerned about their own future independence.
Indeed, it seems that one could say to both Washington and Tehran, “When you find yourself digging the ground out from under your own feet, get a bigger shovel!”

Mideast Nuclear Transparency

Medical-grade uranium is yesterday’s issue; it is time for the Mideast to focus on nuclear transparency.
It is not clear that Washington wants to resolve the nuclear dispute with Iran. The sour grapes from Administration spokespeople in response to the efforts of Ankara and Brasilia to save us from our own shortsightedness indeed suggests that Washington has considerable affection for the nuclear dispute, which is no doubt seen in some corners as a very convenient cover for efforts to subordinate Iran once again to the U.S./Israeli empire.
However, giving the benefit of the doubt to an Obama Administration still clearly confused about what is actually happening in the big world it aspires to lead, here is a Washington-style plan (i.e., talking points that will fit on one Powerpoint slide) for resolving the Iranian-American nuclear dispute:
  1. accept the breakthrough and honor it by suspending all action on sanctions until the date that Iran is due to deliver its uranium to Turkey;
  2. rush to respond by delivering medical-grade uranium to Iran ahead of schedule;
  3. applaud Iran’s good faith
  4. call for full nuclear transparency from all Mideast states and request that the IAEA lead a campaign to achieve that goal.
Only an idiot could imagine that the agreement achieved this week solves “all issues” related to the nuclear dispute. No one ever claimed that it would; pointing out that it does not only makes the speaker sound insincere. This agreement merely corrects an injustice against Iran, for medical-grade uranium should never have been denied Iran in the first place…and opens the door to actually discussing real problems. The core of these real problems is nuclear transparency.
If Israel feels disturbed by Iranian nuclear ambiguity, it is only reaping what it sowed by introducing the policy of nuclear ambiguity to the region. That policy is classic negative-sum behavior: it harms the security of everyone. The transparent fig leaf of Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity only accomplishes two things: it holds Israel up to ridicule as a pathetically hypocritical state and it encourages others to copy the policy, but perhaps more skillfully (i.e., dangerously). The result is that everyone feels less secure and reacts by preparing for war, raising tensions and, in the end, actually making everyone less secure. It is time for the Mideast to focus on nuclear transparency.