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.

Le Paradigme Modérés-Militants

The White House remains, nine years after 9/11, mired in the false paradigm that the Mideast is divided neatly into two opposing camps – “good” moderates vs. “bad” militants, which is exactly why Washington should start listening to the real moderates such as Erdogan and Lula.

Robert Malley and Peter Harling from International Crisis Group present, in an article in Le Monde on 5/24/10, a pointed summary of the Mideast trap left by Bush for Obama:

Tout d’abord, le legs de l’administration Bush est d’avoir réveillé les trois épicentres de tensions mentionnés plus haut, provoquant des changements tectoniques en invitant à une renégociation des rapports de force à un niveau interétatique (opposant notamment Israël, l’Iran, l’Arabie saoudite, la Syrie, l’Egypte et la Turquie) et infraétatique (au Liban, sur la scène palestinienne et en Irak).
Cette multiplication des zones de tension s’est produite conjointement avec un affaiblissement de la crédibilité et de l’influence américaines, et ce à double titre. D’une part, la capacité militaire des Etats-Unis a révélé ses profondes limites – directement, à travers ses déboires irakiens et, indirectement, par le biais des échecs israéliens au Liban et à Gaza.
D’autre part, la politique des Etats-Unis s’est placée systématiquement sur le plan des valeurs, déployant sans relâche un argumentaire moraliste, à un moment où l’image du pays constituait justement son plus grand point faible. Impérialisme en Irak, attitude réductrice face à l’islamisme, rejet du résultat des élections palestiniennes, aveuglement face aux agissements israéliens, violations des droits de l’homme : difficile d’imaginer administration plus repoussante pour une opinion publique arabe qu’elle entendait pourtant galvaniser.
Le manichéisme de Washington, sommant les acteurs locaux de choisir résolument leur camp, a eu pour autre conséquence d’enfermer ses alliés dans une relation aussi exclusive qu’inconfortable, tout en renforçant l’axe opposé. L’iniquité des Etats-Unis dans les perceptions populaires donnait force aux pôles de “résistance”, notamment l’Iran, la Syrie, le Hezbollah et le Hamas. Une logique de confrontation systématique venait ressouder les relations souvent ambivalentes que ces acteurs entretiennent entre eux.
Enfin, dans chacune des trois arènes régionales, la politique de Washington leva, très concrètement, les obstacles qui se posaient à la montée en puissance de ses ennemis. Ainsi, les Etats-Unis permirent celle de l’Iran en Irak, du Hezbollah au Liban et du Hamas en Palestine.
En somme, l’administration Bush employait un paradigme hérité de la guerre froide, quand la diplomatie s’ancrait dans des relations bilatérales relativement stables, et que Washington pouvait s’appuyer sur ses alliés pour promouvoir des intérêts clairement définis.
La guerre globale contre le terrorisme n’était, à vrai dire, qu’une tentative grossière de restituer un ordre binaire, une idéologie pouvant subsumer la diversité des adversaires et les contradictions inhérentes à son propre camp. Elle était d’emblée vouée à l’échec parce qu’elle n’était que le rejeton un peu difforme d’une ère dépassée. Ce manichéisme s’est sapé de lui-même, qui plus est, en contribuant au déclin de la puissance américaine, à l’embarras du camp des modérés, et à la prolifération des conflits.

In this false image from fevered neo-con minds, “moderate” and “militant” are defined not on the basis of behavior by in terms of the degree of subservience to Washington. All who salute are moderate regardless of how violent they may be; all who insist on the right to independent policies are “militant,” regardless of how dedicated they may be to reform or democracy or peace. With religious fundamentalists, expansionists, those who “understand only the language of force,” those who overthrow democratic governments, those with vicious secret police forces to suppress domestic civil liberties, and those who practice collective punishment all jumbled together under the label of moderates who “share our values,” how is Obama or anyone else to make sense of U.S. policy toward the Mideast?
Erdogan and Lulu see this trap clearly; the White House–still mired in le paradigme modérés-militants— evidently still does not.

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!”

A Tiny but Critical Step toward Resolving Washington’s Nuclear Dispute with Tehran

 Rational world leaders must recognize that the Turkish-Brazilian-Iranian nuclear agreement is a tiny but essential first step toward overcoming the paranoia and making a place in the world for Iran.
Ankara and Brasilia have achieved with Tehran a tiny agreement on a technical detail about the normal provision of medical grade uranium to Iran, something that, outside of the current atmosphere of paranoia would never have been noticed by the world media. But there is an atmosphere of paranoia, and medical-grade uranium has become entangled with the whole issue of whether or not the Washington-based international political system can incorporate Iranian demands for foreign policy independence. In between those two extremes, Washington sees the exchange of electricity-grade Iranian uranium for medical-grade Western uranium as a means of postponing the day when Tehran will have managed to accumulate sufficient military-grade uranium (of which it presumably has none whatsoever) to build a single test bomb (the testing of which would destroy the uranium, putting Iran theoretically in the nuclear camp but in practice still weaponless until it could refine more. So the tiny agreement about a tiny exchange becomes in fact major news, offering the first substantive ray of hope that the world will be able to step back from paranoia.
Rather than criticizing Ankara, Israelis should rejoice over a deal that has the potential to enhance Israeli security, reduce the likelihood that Iran will build the bomb, and further integrate Iran into a somewhat reformed international political system. Tel Aviv’s shoot-from-the-hip attack on the agreement [Ynet News 5/17/10] appears to be a classic example of the paranoia that bedevils all efforts to resolve this dispute but would perhaps be more accurately interpreted as admission that Tel Aviv recognizes its warmongering game is up.
All the above points are complicated and tenuous; the road to success is replete with pot-holes. By a hostile reaction, the West could destroy the agreement; domestic factionalism in Iran could also destroy it. And the overall nuclear dispute with Iran is far deeper than this issue of medical-grade uranium. Nevertheless, on its face, the agreement represents the most substantive step toward resolution of the dispute made so far. Even if Tehran turns out, as Tel Aviv alleges, to be cheating, the agreement will have the advantage of quickly exposing such intent. If the agreement is implemented, it will in and of itself of course not stop militarization, but the best chance for that is the creation of an international environment in which Iran sees benefits more from cooperation than from hostility to the international system. For that to happen, the international system needs to be reformed sufficiently so Iran can find a secure and welcome place in it while retaining foreign policy independence. No more than Brazil does Iran want to be an American colony; no more than Syria or Palestine does it want to be an Israeli colony. The West should applaud the agrement, put sanctions talk on the shelf, and facilitate the creation of an atmosphere conducive to the agreement’s implementation. Once the injustice of denying Iran medical-grade uranium has been redressed, attention can be refocused on Iranian…and Israeli nuclear transparency.

Uranium Enrichment: Test of Foreign Policy Independence?

Washington should be careful not to turn domestic uranium enrichment into the test, in the eyes of emerging world powers, of independence. That would be a defeat for the security of the world far more dangerous than Iranian acquisition of the bomb.
The lack of flexibility on Washington’s part regarding its dispute with Iran about nuclear behavior is raising the likelihood that Tehran will succeed in shifting the focus of the international debate over its nuclear program from the question of militarization to the question of rights to uranium enrichment for civilian purposes. Since NPT members already have that legal right, if Iran can make that issue the focus, its position will become far stronger.
Ominously for Washington, Brazilian Foreign Minister Amorim said [ 3/3/10]:

I acted as ambassador to Turkey before critical decisions were made on Iraq. And that’s very much what I heard back in 1998, 1999. I mean, smoke and mirrors – were playing smoke and mirrors.

And what we saw, in fact, was the major charge against Iraq never did materialize. I mean, I’m not saying that in the past, they did not have any programs on weapons of mass destruction; they did have. However, the fact is that the destruction caused and the losses that the war had incurred were huge.

Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu has made the same point [Today’s Zaman 5/16/10]:

We know how we suffered because of sanctions against Iraq at the time. After going through such an experience, it is obvious that a sanction package regarding Iran or any of our neighbors will not be in compliance with our foreign policy.
Brazil, following closely the Iranian nuclear policy, opened its own uranium enrichment plant 2006. Like Iran, Brazil claims its enrichment is intended for civilian purposes, and like Iran, Brazil’s enrichment program is steadily expanding [World Nuclear News 1/14/10]. According to a study by Belkis Cabrera-Palmer and Geoffrey Rothwell, Brazil’s Resende enrichment plant is unlikely to be economically competitive with international sources of refined uranium, suggesting that ensuring a secure source of fuel is the real reason for domestic enrichment, a reason that Iranian leaders would surely find understandable.

The U.S., weakened not just by its lack of creativity and obvious bias but also by the bitter memory throughout the world of the Iraq escapade that many fear is the model for Washington’s current Iran policy, risks creating a situation in which Iran not only succeeds in constructing a solid enrichment industry but does so in defiance of Washington and as the leader of a new global bloc of middle-ranking powers observing the letter of the NPT law but in practice implementing a highly unstable and therefore dangerous policy of nuclear ambiguity.

One might, following Khamenei in a meeting with Lula, call this a “global anti-totalitarian front,” {создания “единого всемирного антитоталитарного фронта”} [MIGNews 3/16/10] exactly the outcome Washington is presumably trying to avoid.

Khamenei baldly laid out Tehran’s ambitious goal of a foreign policy not just independent of but directly challenging Washington’s global leadership:

Единственный способ изменить существующий ныне репрессивный мировой порядок – это формирование более близких связей между независимыми государствами. Сверхдержавы построили вертикальный миропорядок, и водрузили себя наверх этой пирамиды. Подобного рода отношения могут быть изменены и мы их изменим

Lula’s mere presence was message enough, but he responded with a phrase that is easy to read as clear endorsement of Khomenei’s ambition to establish foreign policy independence:

Бразилия верит в то, что у Ирана есть все права на защиту независимости и технологический прогресс.

It is not hard to understand why “Brasilia believes that Iran is entirely within its rights to defend its independence and technical progress.”

In a wonderful little book on the U.S. relationship with Latin American, En el Patio de Atras [In the Backyard – my trans.], Latin American social scientist Amira Armenta has much to say about the Latin view of the world that is directly relevant to Lula’s decision to put his personal prestige on the line in the Washington-Tehran nuclear dispute:

Despues de la formulacion de la Doctrina Monroe no ha habido una stola decada en la historia del continente que no haya estado marcada por un hecho de intervencion de fuerza de EEUU en alguno do los paises [in Latin America]. A la vez que EEUU fue tomando cada vez mas posicion como poder economico y politico decisor en la region….[p.12]

Lo que hoy dia se explica como un clash of civilizations, no seria otra cosa que una manifestacion de la asimetria del desarrollo de las sociedades, que ahora se nota mas, dada la globalizacion, la velocidad de las comunicaciones, la facilidad con que la poblacion se desplaza por el mundo. [.13]

Washington has not been able to isolate Iran because Iran has a message of defiance for the whole “global South,” a message that links basic legal rights regarding high technology and, unfortunately, specifically to exercising the legal right to uranium enrichment, to independence.

If Washington creates a situation in which nuclear ambiguity is equated throughout the world with foreign policy independence (precisely Iran’s current position and not so far from the positions of Ankara, Brasilia, and Tokyo), this will be a huge step backwards for global good governance.

The Nuclear Dance

Many reputations on the line with this week’s diplomacy surrounding the Iranian nuclear issue.
After a year of much talk about Mideast reconciliation but little publicly known substance to back it up, Turkey is now taking the next step.
First, in Washington Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu reiterated Turkey’s willingness to accept Iranian uranium even though it is not clear that such a move would be acceptable to Tehran. Next, Davutoglu visited Brazil to discuss Iranian nukes [Hurriyet, 4/18/10] and will take the results of that effort at a joint position to Tehran this week.
Tehran’s reaction will offer transparency into Tehran’s true motivations (either to solve the crisis or to promote its apparent Israeli-style policy of nuclear ambiguity). Steve Clemmons has an interesting write-up on The Washington Note [4/15/10] about Davutoglu’s justification for Turkish opposition to sanctions against Iran, including a revealing remark about how U.S. sanctions against Saddam harmed Turkey from which U.S. decision makers should learn a lesson about downstream impact of heavy-handed U.S. policies.
Davutoglu, who visits Tehran regularly, told reporters in Washington last week that there has been a “change of approach” in Tehran recently resulting in acceptance “in principle” of a deal that would remove most of its enriched uranium from Iran [Zaman 4/19/10]. This would appear to meet the public terms set by Washington, but the longer the dispute lasts, the more Iran’s nuclear infrastructure advances and therefore the less technical significance the specific issue of medical-grade uranium has. It seems increasingly apparent that the real stumbling block lies over the political question of whether or not the two sides wish to achieve progress. At the moment, Tehran appears to find progress on the specific issue useful, while Washington does not. State Department spokesman Crowley dismissively remarked, “when you, you know, look behind the curtain, there’s really nothing there,” a statement that appears to go out of its way to cast Iran in a negative light. Indeed, Crowley made it clear that Washington’s goal was not the specific issue of a trade of types of refined uranium but the broader issue of curbing Iran’s overall nuclear program.
Tehran’s Chance on Sanctions
Given the global sensitivity of sanctions imposed by the rich on the poor, Tehran now has a golden opportunity to undermine Washington’s campaign by being forthcoming with Turkey and Brazil. Its failure to do so will greatly strengthen Washington’s position, putting particular pressure on China and Turkey to accept strengthened sanctions, and will embolden Westerners looking for a military solution.
Washington Reaction Will Offer Transparency into Washington’s Goals
If Turkey and Brazil manage to get Tehran on board and Obama reacts, this would constitute evidence for the hypothesis that he is looking for a compromise solution to the nuclear issue. On the other hand, if he rejects their move, it will lend credence to the hypothesis that the nuclear debate is primarily a cover for a U.S. effort to subordinate Iran to U.S.-Israeli hegemony over the Mideast. JCS Chairman Mullen’s recent equating of an attack on Iran with an Iranian development of nuclear weapons as equally destabilizing suggests strong opposition to war but does not speak to the hypothesis that Washington may truly be maneuvering to leave Iran marginalized and alienated rather than an integrated member of the international community but still independent and possessing rising influence.
Turkish Credibility
Meanwhile, as we await the details of the Turkish-Brazilian proposal that is evidently being formed, Erdogan’s credibility as the leader of a new Mideast moderate movement is very much on the line. He has clearly articulated his position; it remains to be seen if he can put deliver.

Israeli Extremists Challenge the World

Levantines getting a bit of backbone as Washington gets cold feet.

Jordan’s King Abdullah, running a country that is half Palestinian and living very much under the shadow of the IDF, takes great care to present an extremely understanding and submissive public face to the Israeli superpower next door. Yet here is what he had to say about Jerusalem to the EU’s visiting foreign policy representative Catherine Ashton:
Jerusalem is a red line and the world should not be silent about Israel’s attempts to get rid of Jerusalem’s Arabs residents, Muslims or Christians…[Jordan] demands the international community take a firm, swift, direct and effective action to stop Israel’s provocative measures in Jerusalem, that seek to change its identity and threaten holy sites there.
First, what did he say? “Attempts to get rid of” Arabs means “ethnic cleansing.” That is hard to retract, hard to negotiate about. (“Mr. Abbas, what degree of ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem would be acceptable to your side?”) 
[“Ethnic cleansing” charges are of course high-powered armaments. For those utterly new to this but serious, Israeli Ilan Pappe is the place to start. Lawrence of Cyberia has an extremely informative blog post with the numbers.]
Second, what is the significance of anything a conservative Arab leader says about Israel? That is harder to answer, but in the current context of Palestinian protest riots, Washington political claims of having been insulted by Israel, and Washington military warnings that Israel is putting U.S. troops in danger, might one reasonably conclude that this represents another piece of evidence that the political ground may be shifting under the feet of Israel’s right wing leadership? I am, in brief, suggesting that it may be hard to return from this to business as usual.
Meanwhile, Lula, wearing the new badge of having been insulted by the Israeli government himself, visited the grave of Arafat and struck a Martin Luther King pose with his “dream” of Palestine-Israeli peace. One wonders if Lula and Erdogan are coordinating a tag-team approach to introduce the new concept of moderation to the Mideast.
Even Abbas, now “demanding” some rather logical and moderate preconditions for talking without sitting down together (Israel should keep commitments made by previous regimes), is finding backbone. But mostly, the politicians are diving for cover, Obama apparently planning on taking a trip rather than face Netanyahu when he charges into town next week, Mitchell’s trip off, Palestinian presidential advisor Sahib Oreikat‘s trip to Moscow on hold, and Biden…well, exactly where is Biden and exactly what did he say and does he still believe it? Hillary, no surprise, is losing backbone as fast as Abbas gets his. Not a word has yet been heard from Washington about something even so timid as “fully supporting the security of the Israeli people but hoping for an Israeli administration that will work sincerely with the U.S.” Oh, no. Perish the thought of any “space” between the Israeli “obstructionists”–the nail Judah Grunstein so neatly hit on its head–and Washington pols. These guys (the Washington pols) are not exactly big strategic thinkers.
A more cynical and, frankly, probably more accurate assessment was given on March 14 by the Jews Sans Frontiers website:
It does not signal a breach in the relations between Israel and the U.S. The problem for American dominance is not Israel, which is and will remain a valuable ally, but the out of control populist right wing in Israel which has developed a sort of bulimic land eating disorder, and needs to feed more and more often on Palestinian land to feel satiated. That populist right wing is also a problem for the Israeli ruling class, but primarily to the extent that it matters to the US. As long as the US allows it, the Israeli ruling class would rather not confront it. Let the fanatics, as far as the Israeli center is concerned, get their daily nibble at the Palestinian expense. The predatory relation is already deeply institutionalized; the whole Israeli military apparatus is organized around the colonization process; it can be slowed down or sped up, but it cannot be dismantled with serious damage all around. The US will not risk serious damage to Israel, unless it is pushed really hard by its Arab clients. They, in their turn, couldn’t care less, except occasionally when they fear that things have gone too far and they need to get a bone that they can hang on their breast as proof to their people that they are not totally venal but can get some respect from Washington. It’s a political game whose object for all the players is none other than the ultimate goal of politics according to Raymond Aron, “to make things last.” In its Middle East version it is often known as the bicycle principle, in the words of former Israeli FM Meridor: “the peace process [is] like being on a bicycle; one must keep pedaling lest you crash and fall off.” Except it is cycling on training rollers and need not actually go anywhere.

How to Resolve the Palestinian-Israeli Dispute

A current school of thought on how the U.S. should deal with the recalcitrant Netanyahu is that it should tighten the screws. The argument, persuasive at a certain level, goes like this: Netanyahu has spent the past year making it crystal clear that he will never agree to a viable Palestinian state, so continuing polite discussions is mere charade. This is certainly true, but it does not necessarily follow that “turning the screws” will work: there is a severe political constraint on what Washington’s timid politicians will ever have the courage to do. Therefore, while pressuring Israel may be deserved and emotionally satisfying, an alternative and quite obvious approach holds more promise of achieving a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

The more promising approach is straightforward and logical: talk to people willing to cooperate rather than wasting time with those intent upon cheating. This can proceed on three levels. First, Israelis disenchanted with their government’s intransigence and concerned about Israel’s long-term security are speaking out loudly; listen to them. Second, Turkey, Brazil, and Japan have all made it clear that they are willing to assist in any genuine effort to achieve a Mideast compromise. Third is the Palestinian level. After all, the issue does concern the Palestinians, so why not talk to them? Extend an invitation to all concerned Palestinian parties to meet with U.S. and allied representatives, making clear that Washington will favor not individuals or groups but all those willing to join together in a Palestinian united front dedicated to establishing an independent, democratic state.

If the Netanyahu regime chooses to exclude itself from this dialogue, then simply leave it be. Let history pass it by.

Obama Still Searching for Mideast Balance

Effectiveness in global affairs requires more than big guns; it requires the ability to balance rhetoric and action. Few leaders do this well; as his Mideast policy shows, Obama is not yet among them.

Judging from the AP summary in Haaretz on March 12, Clinton found some backbone during her phone call to Netanyahu. That is encouraging, coming from someone whose “Israel first, America second” bias has been deeply disturbing not just to Palestinians desiring justice but to Americans hoping finally to be able to be proud of their country again.
Nevertheless, Clinton’s newly tough rhetoric still falls far short of matching Israel’s steady shifting of the realities on the ground. For the past year, as Obama talked about peace, Netanyahu has been taking slow, constant steps to implement the Zionist program of Israeli expansion and the clearance of Palestinians. The announcement of new housing for Israeli colonists during Biden’s trip was noteworthy only for its timing – both in that it served to humiliate the U.S. and in that it carefully pulled the rug out from under the imminent new round of Israeli-Palestinian talks.
Why the Israeli right wants to derail the talks is a mystery, since talks have always served to delay rather than prepare for Palestinian independence. Perhaps the right has over the past decade and in particular over the past six months since the high point of Obama’s rhetorical support for a new U.S. attitude toward the Muslim world become so confident that it views the fig leaf of talks with impatience.
In any case, for Washington to regain the initiative it must not just alter its rhetoric but match Israeli changes to the ground truth (settler terrorism against Palestinians, new houses, new settlements). A “deeply negative signal” that “undermines trust,” as Clinton put it, seems more than sufficient to justify Washington simply turning its back on Tel Aviv and focusing on negotiating with Fatah and Hamas to create a Palestinian united front. But the fact that Clinton spoke for 43 minutes with Netanyahu suggests quite the opposite – that she pleaded and argued and let Netanyahu talk her ears off while his ministers prepare the next slap in the face. It does not take 43 minutes to tell someone that you no longer have confidence in them.
Meanwhile, on the ground, the Israeli police were arresting and shooting not just Palestinian protesters but Israelis as well. Yes, there are still some Israelis—called “leftists”–willing to risk violence at the hands of the police in order to support human rights.
The Netanyahu regime knows exactly where it wants to go and is moving straight toward its target. The Obama regime unfortunately continues to stumble, having yet to find the balance between words and action.
Evidently realizing that the United States of (north) America needs help, the inimitable leader of the United States of Brazil gave an interview for reporters from Haaretz and an Islamic organization in which he made some of the points Obama seems unable to articulate. According to the Palestine News Agency on March 12, Lula noted that “the world is lacking global governance” due to the unrepresentative nature of the UN and other multilateral institutions, that the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the Iranian nuclear issue are two parts of the overall Mideast problem which must be resolved through negotiations:
the time has come to bring into the arena players who will be able to put forward new ideas. Those players must have access to all levels of the conflict: in Israel, in Palestine, in Iran, in Syria, in Jordan and in many other countries that are associated with this conflict. This is the only way we will be able to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace, and at the same time be able to say clearly to Iran that we are against the manufacture of nuclear weapons….
I do not want Israel to attack Iran, just as I do not want Iran to attack Israel. In an orderly world, people have to learn to talk to one another….
[the November 2007 Annapolis conference] gives me serious doubts: Who really wants peace in the Middle East? Who has an interest in achieving a solution and who would like the conflict to continue? The impression is that someone is constantly working here as though he has hidden enemies, people who simply do not want an agreement to be reached….
Anyone who compares Ahmadinejad and modern-day Iran to Hitler and the Nazis is having the same kind of radicalism of which Iran is being accused. Anyone who takes that line is not contributing in the least to the peace process which we want to create for the sake of the future. You cannot do politics with hate and resentment. Anyone who wants to do politics with hate and resentment should get out of politics. Nobody can rule a country through the liver. You have to rule a country with your head and your heart. Other than that, it’s best to stay somewhere else other than in politics….
we must not allow what happened in Iraq to happen in Iran. Accordingly, before sanctions of any kind are imposed, we must make every effort to rebuild the peace in the Middle East. That is what is behind my visit to Israel, Palestine and Jordan – and that is what will also take me on a visit to Iran later. After all, the Middle East conflict is not bilateral and does not pertain only to Israel and Palestine. There are other interests in the Middle East, interests which must be represented so that we can find a solution. Iran is part of all this, and therefore someone must talk to them….
Lula suggested an interesting idea–that being a peaceful country is the qualification for being a mediator. Brazil has renounced nuclear arms, and it is hard to remember the last time that country invaded anyone. Perhaps Brazilian intervention is just what the Mideast needs.

Building Confidence Between Tehran & Washington

Following the Cold War, a highly abnormal period during which the minor members of each global bloc were expected to make sacrifices for their respective blocs, it is probably fair to say that most countries looked forward to gaining a bit more freedom of maneuver, a bit more consideration of their particular viewpoints. Thus, when some country protests that Washington’s pressuring of Iran is not the appropriate approach, Washington should not be too hasty to dismiss this argument. Such comments have become increasingly prominent lately, e.g., in Brazilia and Ankara.

Now China’s special envoy to the Mideast, Wu Sike, is reported by China Daily on March 9 as asserting that China’s primary reason for opposing sanctions (the economic equivalent of war) is that “tough measures may backfire.” Wu’s point is historically solid – economic blackmail or economic warfare, if you find that a more appropriate term, has a rather poor record of effectiveness.
However, there is a broader point. Whether the possibility of failure is more important to China’s leaders than economic considerations (i.e., China’s large oil imports from and trade ties with Iran) or not, it seems safe to assume that Beijing genuinely views with concern any international precedent for bullying countries that do not follow rules “made in the USA.”
That point of course also applies to Ankara and Brazilia, both of which are demonstrating rising interest in finding their own way internationally. Syria, despite its alliance with Iran, also belongs firmly in this group.
It may be that the Obama Administration has a brilliant behind-the-scenes policy of asking Ankara, Beijing, Brazilia, and Damascus to engage politely in sincere discussions with Tehran. If not, Obama deserves an F in international relations. If so, he still deserves no more than a D because he is allowing his former competitor for the presidency, a specialist in health care policy where she is desperately needed rather than international affairs, to make public remarks that will sabotage any sincere effort by Washington to encourage regimes with good contacts in Tehran to make use of those contacts in the interests of the common good.
Rather than running scared in the face of the standard rightwing attacks against anyone in favor of international peace and cooperation, Obama should allow the ravings of those extremists to stand as a warning of what could happen to a recalcitrant Iran and himself develop a consistent public/private policy of searching for compromise.
For those who, even if not right-wingers, don’t know the definition of the word “compromise,” it means that both sides make concessions. Perhaps you think sarcasm is unnecessary here, but the truth is that not very many people in Washington understand this word. Searching for compromise means that Obama needs to start laying out not “what Iran needs to do” – a phrase that should constitute grounds for immediate dismissal of any so-called diplomat from whose lips it escapes – but what Washington is willing to offer.
If you are having trouble with this, think of it in terms of poker. When your antagonist plays a card, you don’t say, “What you need to do is remove that card.” No, you counter with a card of your own. Back in the Cold War days, such cards were called “confidence-building measures,” and they did much to avoid nuclear holocaust.