March 24, 2009
Number 03/09 #06
As readers are probably aware, US President Obama made a Nowruz (Persian New Year) message to the people and leaders of Iran (text here, video here), which is widely regarded as part of his efforts to initiate a dialogue with Iran. This Update looks at the intended impact of the address, and more widely, at US policy toward Iran.
First up is prominent Canadian businessman and former head of the World Jewish Congress Edgar Bronfman, who supports Obama’s initiative but argues that leverage and realism are essential in dealing with Iran. He is particularly keen to exploit Iran’s economic vulnerabilities exposed by low oil prices, and calls for a ratcheting scale of measures of coercion against Iran, in between talk and military action. He points out that based on his own extensive experience of dialogue with various groups – that while dialogue is “always helpful in reducing tensions and intellectually stimulating” this “didn’t obscure the main lesson: idealism without realism, and negotiations without leverage, simply don’t work in this world.” For his complete argument, CLICK HERE. Additional comments on Obama’s initiative comes from American academics Philip Carl Salzman and Mark Katz, commentator William Kristol, and Israeli blogger and journalist Shmuel Rosner. Meanwhile, differing views on how Obama’s message will affect Iranians pressing for democratisation come from pseudonymous Iranian-American blogger and activist ganselmi and Muslim-American blogger Aziz Poonawalla.
Next up, Professor Barry Rubin, who is now publishing a new blog on top of his other prodigious output, is more sceptical that Obama’s outreach will be successful. Parsing Obama’s speech, he says that many of his statements are likely to be interpreted differently by the Iranians, and moreover, Obama’s call is not that different from what both Presidents Bush and Clinton have said in the past. He argues that there is a genuine clash of interests between the US and Iran that cannot be negotiated away, and that when Obama talks about recognising Iran’s “rightful place”, Iranians are likely to view their “rightful place” as “a world leader, most powerful state in the Middle East, and inspiration for a lot of Islamist regime franchises” which will not likely be acceptable to Washington. For all of Rubin’s discussion, CLICK HERE. Rubin also had another comment on the difficulty of dialoguing with Iran based on an anecdote about a visiting American delegation, as well as an interesting comment about the pitfalls of promoting Middle East democracy.
Finally, Israeli academic Dr. Gerald Steinberg, who heads NGO-Monitor, analyses the latest changes to the draft outcome declaration for the UN’s controversial Durban II anti-racism conference planned for next month. Steinberg argues that the changes to the text introduced by a committee led by Russia are indeed an important victory for the many states that were concerned about the conference’s planned demonisation of Israel, criminalisation of “defamation of religion” and other problematic elements. However, he concludes that as long as the text continues to re-affirm the original highly problematic Durban document, which “would reinforce the damage done eight years ago in Durban,” the changes do not go far enough to warrant responsible governments attending the conference. For Steinberg’s complete analysis and recommendation, CLICK HERE. Additional discussion of the Durban II changes comes from Anne Bayefsky of “Eye of the UN”, and Felice Gaer, who served as one of the Obama Administration’s delegates to the last Durban II preparatory session.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei’s response to Obama’s speech was pretty unwelcoming. Some analysis of the significance of this response from a variety of expert commentators is here.
- The Jerusalem Post is cautious about Obama’s new approach, appealing for American clear-sightedness on Iranian aims. Haaretz is more positive. Plus, Haaretz‘s Yossi Melman explores the different Israeli and American “clocks” with respect to the Iranian nuclear program.
- Some additional perspectives on approaches to Iran comes from Canada’s National Post, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, scholar Emmanuel Ottolenghi, and a panel of former public servants assembled by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
- Non-proliferation specialist William H. Tobey examines new evidence from the latest IAEA report of Iranian nuclear deception. Meanwhile, former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton discusses the implications of new allegations that Iran was bankrolling Syria’s al-Khibar nuclear reactor, destroyed by Israel in 2007.
- Interestingly, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last month that she does not expect American diplomacy to be able to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
- Some claims that Russia may now be prepared to be more helpful on Iran, while a Russian strategic expert warns publicly of the Iranian nuclear and missile threat.
- A look by Iranian exile Amir Taheri at Mir-Hussein Mussavi, who is the “reformist” candidate challenging Ahmadinejad in Iran’s presidential election in June.
- Stressing the human rights angle of any dialogue with Iran are dissident leaders Mariam Memarsadeghi and Akbar Atri, as well as journalist Abbas Djavadi. Plus, a new article on the plight of Iran’s Baha’is, with the Prosecutor General recently declaring it a crime to even call oneself a Baha’i, comes from human rights activist Nazila Ghanea. Also commenting on Iran’s human rights situation was Emmanuel Ottolenghi.
- US combat deaths in Iraq are at a six year low, and the latest poll of Iraqis also seems to indicate continuing strong improvements in the security situation of Iraqis. Meanwhile, analyst Danielle Pletka puts the Obama Administration’s plans for Iraq in perspective.
- Also making a less-noted Nowruz address to the Iranian people was Israeli President Shimon Peres.
- Peres has just given Israeli PM-designate Binyamin Netanyahu an additional two weeks to form a government.
- Considerable debate has occurred in Israel about Labor leader Ehud Barak’s proposal to join Netanyahu’s government, with contrasting examples from prominent journalists Shmuel Rosner and Yoel Marcus.
- Palestinian Authority sources say Hezbollah or another Iranian-backed group may be behind a major car-bombing attempt on an Israeli shopping mall on Saturday.
- An interesting new video on the vilifying of Israel from the American Jewish Committee.
- Yet more Israeli debate about Gilad Schalit – here, here, here, and here.
- Finally, a great deal is being written (much of it incomplete or lacking background) on allegations of various forms of misbehaviour by Israeli soldiers in Gaza coming out of a military discussion seminar published in Haaretz. Pieces pointing out the limits of the claims and the shakiness of the most horrifying allegations coming out of the discussion – 2 cases where civilians are alleged to have been killed – come from British columnist and blogger Melanie Philips, Jerusalem Post columnist Herb Keinon, and blogger Eamonn McDonagh. Reactions from other soldiers, as well as the IDF command, are here and here respectively.
- A Jerusalem Post editorial on the importance of maintaining the highest ethical standards in the IDF, while keeping these allegations in perspective, is here.
Edgar M. Bronfman
Posted March 20, 2009 | 01:59 PM (EST)
President Barack Obama’s unprecedented video message to the Iranian people yesterday is a strong indication that Iran will continue to be a high priority for the new administration. Engagement through new diplomatic avenues, like the video, is worthwhile, but we must not lose sight of the challenge Iran still poses.
As if we needed a reminder, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s recent trip to the Middle East made clear that Iran plays a central role in the thoughts and fears of most countries, whether Arab or Jewish. While Israel might justifiably be most vocal about the threat that a nuclear-armed Iran poses for its people’s future, the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, moderate Lebanese and others are also clearly on edge.
Indeed, in a recent interview on CNN with Gamal Mubarak, the heir apparent to his father in Egypt, this articulate young man made it clear that his country, too, had serious differences of opinion with Tehran about the future of the region.
On issue after issue, from a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to curbing radical Islamic fundamentalism, Iran remains a major stumbling block.
It is also worth noting that just in the last few years, as Iran’s nuclear development has proceeded in earnest, a number of other regional states including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria have all signaled their intention to develop their own nuclear programs. A future nuclear arms race in the Middle East, which had never been an issue in all the decades since Israel ostensibly became a nuclear weapons state, is now a very real possibility due to Iranian proliferation.
While the Obama administration is still formulating its policy on Iran, the public debate for quite some time – both here in the U.S. and in Israel – has focused too much on extremes: on the one hand, conservative hard-line proponents of the military option against Iran’s nuclear installations; on the other, those liberal champions of dialogue and negotiation with Iran which, so the thinking goes, are ready to cut a deal which might not even achieve disarmament.
While this debate plays out, the Iranian nuclear issue only grows as a problem, with no resolution in sight.
What is needed, it seems to me, is a policy that understands both the clear limitations of either “just bombing,” or “just talking.” Rather, real sanctions that take into account present economic realities could provide us in the West and the Middle East with the best opportunity to attenuate Iran’s behavior and goals.
First, we have to acknowledge that at no point since we began to take Iran’s nuclear ambitions seriously a few years ago has the global price of oil been so weak. For all the very real damage that the global financial crisis has inflicted, it has arguably hit energy producers like Iran even harder. Export revenues have cratered, government budgets have been slashed, and the very real structural difficulties Iran had before – like high unemployment and inflation – have been exacerbated.
More importantly, because it lacks an adequate domestic refining capacity, Iran still needs to import about 40 percent of the gasoline its people use. Herein lies the opportunity. Recently, a bipartisan group of congressional members called on the U.S. government to sever its business ties with a Swiss firm responsible for supplying Iran with about 25 percent of its gasoline imports. While commendable, these initiatives need to be publicly embraced by the administration and implemented quickly. The responsible thing to do would be to pursue such corporations, and offer them a simple but ethical choice: Washington or Tehran.
Such sanctions and divestment strategies, combined with a firm but expansive diplomatic outreach, will provide the West with the strongest point of departure from which to engage Iran.
However, and this is the second point, we should be preparing a secondary plan. American contingency planning and the credible threat of further economic hardship have to be taken into account by Iran. When American and Israeli politicians say publicly that “all options are on the table,” they should really mean it – and not just use such language as an unrealistic threat for a massive military campaign.
Other options should include physically targeting Iranian gasoline imports and shutting down, by any available means, Iran’s primary oil refinery. While clearly risky, such options would entail far less damage than air strikes against Iran’s underground nuclear facilities, and could have surprising and positive consequences.
In effect, what we need is a graduated scale of diplomacy and coercion for engaging Iran, in order to achieve the best possible outcome for the U.S. and its regional allies. As a liberal and progressive, I abhor the notion of conflict and bloodshed and very much want to find a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear issue.
During my many years in international business and public life, I have had the good fortune of sitting down for lunch with people with whom I completely disagreed, in practice and principle: Soviet communists, heads of state from various unsavory regimes, benighted religious figures, corrupt business leaders. The dialogue between us, while always helpful in reducing tensions and intellectually stimulating didn’t obscure the main lesson: idealism without realism, and negotiations without leverage, simply don’t work in this world.
By Barry Rubin
GLORIA blog, March 20, 2009
I’m not going to criticize President Barack Obama for offering an olive branch to Iran’s Islamist regime, complete with Farsi subtitles. The funny thing is that everyone seems to have forgotten that the last few presidents tried similar approaches without success.
The real issue will be when Obama discovers that the fish aren’t biting or, to put it a very different way, the shark has eaten the olive branch and is chasing him out of the Gulf.
It is revealing to parse, however, a couple of his lines:
–A “new beginning” of diplomatic engagement. This no doubt seems clever to White House staffers but a new beginning implies forgetting the past. The Iranian regime, based after all on ideas and events of 1400 years ago, isn’t too big on forgetting the past. In Tehran this will be interpreted as forgetting past evil deeds of the Great Satan.
–“My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties,” I believe him but what is this “full range” of issues? Iran wants to dominate Lebanon, Iraq, and the Palestinians; be the hegemonic power in the Gulf, wipe Israel off the map; have nuclear weapons; extend influence and promote Islamist revolution quite widely; throw U.S. and Western influence out of the region; and sponsor terrorism wherever it wishes.
So how is Obama going to address that?
You can talk all you want but that won’t erase real interest conflicts.
–The United States wants Iran to take its “rightful place in the community of nations…. You have that right–but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization.”
This is nicely worded but it really reminds me of what former presidents Clinton and two Bushes said almost word for word.
But how do Iranian leaders think when they hear this? First, perhaps we define our “rightful place” differently. If Iran’s rulers just wanted to be another power in the Middle East, with no one bothering it, that goal could have been achieved easily years ago. Iran’s Islamist government sees its rightful place as a world leader, most powerful state in the Middle East, and inspiration for a lot of Islamist regime franchises.
What we have here are two different definitions of “rightful place.”
And, to the Iranian regime, what is the “rightful place” of the United States? Outside the Middle East, and standing by while Iran’s rulers becomes regional hegemon and destroys Israel along with just about every other existing Arab regime except Syria, that’s where.
Fine words and nice sentiments won’t erase that either.
But my favorite line is Obama telling the Iranian leaders that force, military power, and terrorism won’t work for them. Oh, really? Well they’ve worked pretty well so far. They think America and the West is weak and fearful. Unless these factors stand up to Tehran, the Islamic regime will walk all over them.
In fact, Iran has two slogans that explain its behavior: “Change!” and “Yes we can!”
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to
THE JERUSALEM POST, Mar. 21, 2009
With only one month to go before the opening of the UN’s very controversial Durban Review Conference, the battle over the terms of the final declaration to be adopted by the participating governments has intensified. Faced with a growing number of countries which have declared that they would not participate in another anti-Semitic and anti-democratic conference, the organizers suddenly changed the text. The hate language, attacks on Israel, and attempts to restrict free speech and give Islam a preferred status – all using the façade of human rights – were removed.
For the governments that had already declared that they would not go to this conference, scheduled for April 21 in Geneva, and for others considering a similar move, this poses a policy dilemma. Canada (the first to denounce the anti-Semitism of the Durban process), Israel, the US, and most recently, Italy confronted UN human rights officials with public embarrassment. Following Rome’s lead, a number of other democratic governments – Holland, Britain, Denmark, Australia, and the Czech Republic – were also on the verge of pulling out. This would have triggered a cascade of additional dropouts, leaving the room half-empty.
Now that this text has been changed, should these governments, including Israel, acknowledge this important diplomatic victory that forced a change in text – over the heads of the Libyan and Iranian officials – and agree to participate on the basis of the new document? Or is this a diplomatic sleight of hand – a temporary change in language used to bring an end to the revolt of the democratic delegations? This victory, while incomplete, is nevertheless substantial and almost unique – it may represent a tipping point in the wider “soft war,” including anti-Israel boycotts and lawfare cases that abuse human rights as a weapon. The efforts of Iran, Libya, Syria and Egypt to extend the Durban strategy of demonization have been repudiated within the UN – the same body that has led this process since the 2001 original Durban conference.
In parallel, the powerful NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and their Palestinian allies, have also lost prestige and perhaps some influence in this battle. Not only have their campaigns failed to force Canada, the US, and Italy to change their policies, but the vitriolic NGO Forum from the 2001 Durban conference will not be repeated. If these successes can be “locked in,” to insure that the text and frameworks will not be changed at the last minute, this would be a strategic change.
HOWEVER, THE CASE against re-engagement appears stronger. From this perspective, the entire Durban process and the UN human rights framework is corrupt beyond repair. In this scenario, the war led by the members of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) will resume as soon as the Obama administration and other democratic governments announce a return. When the conference begins, Libya and Iran, with the support of Egypt, Syria, Cuba, and the rest, will use their majority to restore terms like “apartheid” and Israeli “genocide.”
Critics, including the Israeli government, also note that the current text, which was prepared by Russian “facilitator” Yuri Boychenko, remains problematic, particularly in adopting the final declaration from the 2001 Durban Conference. The Israeli and the American delegations withdrew from that conference over the demonizing language (“apartheid,” “war crimes,” etc. in the draft declaration), and the “compromise text,” negotiated by Canada and the Europeans, still singled out Israel. It emphasized “the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation,” recognized “the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination,” and promoted the claim to a “right of return.” An endorsement of this discriminatory language by the 2009 Review Conference would reinforce the damage done eight years ago in Durban.
While the debate on strategy will continue in the next month before the opening of the conference, the record clearly shows that the only means of defeating the OIC in this venue is through a credible threat of a mass withdrawal. A conference limited to Arab and Islamic regimes – among the worst violators of human rights in the world – would delegitimize the entire process.
Without unity among the democracies on the critical issues, the OIC will succeed in creating the appearance of legitimacy, and in restoring the hate-filled sections of the declaration. Instead, leaders who are inclined to declare victory and participate in the review conference must first insure that, at the first sign of this tactic, they will all walk out together, including every member of the European Union. And if this is impossible, particularly regarding the Europeans, they should stay away.
The writer is the Executive Director of NGO Monitor and chairs the Political Science department at Bar Ilan University.