August 14, 2009
Number 08/03 #04
This Update contains some new material on Iran, focussing both on the suppression of unrest there, and Iran’s aggressive foreign policy goals.
First up, American Iran scholar Professor Abbas Milani, whom Updates has featured before, finds himself caught up in the show trial of 100 opposition leaders, and the regime’s effort to claim that all opposition can be explained by foreign conspiracy. The mild-mannered lecturer has been named as a key link in this supposed conspiracy – and uses this fact, and the factual contortions the regime went through to construct its conspiracy theory, to explain the reality of what is going on with the current show trials and repression. He notes that the current repression is only a prelude to worse to come, likely targeting the key opposition leaders including Moussavi, Khatami, and Rafsanjani. For his full argument, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Iran specialist Mehdi Khalaji reports on recent appointments which appear to indicate the Iranian military and Revolutionary Guards are gaining control of the Iranian judiciary. Also, a report says Iran has killed seven lawyers who were representing dissidents.
Next up, Israeli scholar Dr. Jonathan Spyer looks at how Iran is faring in its foreign policy efforts to use its alliance with Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah to attempt to dominate the region. Spyer argues that the Iranian alliance’s efforts under the doctrine of “muqawama” – resistance – now appears to have stalled after previously being able to point to several successes, and this will have significant consequences. He says that between Israel’s defeat of Hamas in Operation Cast Lead at the beginning of the year, the Lebanese election, and the Iranian election and violent aftermath, the momentum of the Iranian alliance has been stalled, and ultimately, it will follow other “great hopes” of the region, such as Pan-Arabism, into oblivion. For the rest of what Spyer has to say, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, David Schenker of the Washington Institute has a good article on the ways in which Egypt is opposing Iran and the Iranian alliance.
Finally, Washington Institute scholar David Makovsky has another important entry into the debate about resolving the disagreement between Washington and Jerusalem over a settlement “freeze”. He argues that the current impasse is having negative effects on peace prospects and creative diplomacy is now urgently needed. He also argues that the complete freeze the US Administration is seeking is not sustainable over any length of time, and therefore, instead, it would be better to work on the never-completed task of delineating existing settlement boundaries, and to produce an agreement which would bar all outward settlement growth and which could last until a final peace is eventually concluded. For this complete argument, CLICK HERE
Readers may also be interested in:
- While, as noted in past Updates, some commentators have argued that US President Obama should speak directly to Israelis about his plans and approach to peacemaking, Shmuel Rosner, Orly Azouley and Jonathan Toben argue that this is not the key to a better relationship.
- American academic Elliot Cohen argues that the Obama Administration’s foreign policy is not that different in the end from the Bush Administration’s.
- More discussions in Washington of the possibility of new sanctions on Iran reported here, here, and here.
- Israel says it wants direct talks with Syria, not mediated talks. Meanwhile, an academic says Syria is facing a severe water problem.
My bizarre role in the Iranian show trial
The New Republic, Saturday, August 08, 2009
A joke has been circulating widely in Iran these past few years:
One day, a fox sees a friend running fast through the forest. “Why are you running?” asks the fox. “They are killing foxes who have three testicles,” the friend replies. “So, why are you running?” the bewildered friend asks again. “After all,” he adds, “all the males in our skulk have only two testicles.” As he quickens his pace, the fleeing fox says, “Yes, but they kill you first, and then count your balls.”
When a regime is paranoid and when it tries to interfere in every aspect of private and public life, its citizens will run like the fox. In Iran, every unexpected ring of the phone, every unexpected nocturnal knock on the door produces a racing heart and a sense of imminent danger. The scars of living under a paranoid regime last a lifetime. Today, even after I have resided in California for almost a quarter of century, a ring of the phone can still provoke fear and trembling.
Earlier this month, I received a phone call. One hundred leaders of the Iranian opposition had been placed on trial and this was the first night of the grotesque spectacle. “You are mentioned in the indictment,” the caller told me. Even though it was a good friend relaying this information, I felt a familiar rush of foreboding.
In style and substance, the trial of the hundred emulates the infamous Soviet show trials of the 1930s. Like their Bolshevik mentors, the mullahs are at least as keen in destroying those who share their ideology as those who oppose it altogether. Stalin, for his part, killed far more leftist writers than those of a tsarist persuasion. Pasternak was always safer than Babel or Bulgakov. In the Tehran trial, we witness leaders (former government ministers, a vice president even) who served the Islamic republic for 30 years paraded in front of the cameras, broken in spirit, wan in countenance, and wearing, for maximum humiliation, pajamas. For them, the indictment is the ultimate betrayal by a regime they had long served, and by an ideology they had long shared.
The first warning that I would be assigned some role in the regime’s paranoid scenario came a few months ago. An editorial in Keyhan–Ayatollah Khamenei’s mouthpiece–described the lawyer Shirin Ebadi, the scholar Abdol-Karim Soroush and myself as partners in an “American plan” to overthrow the regime. At about the same time, a number of so-called intellectuals and journalists began to accuse the three of us of the same alleged crime. Sometimes the language shifted: In the sterile jargon of the left, we were described as “comprador intellectuals” who pave the way for “imperialism.”
But these were fulminations. And the indictment is meant to provide the definitive portrait of the “outside” influences that have incited demonstrations in the streets. “The velvet revolution has three arms, intellectual, media, and executive, and each of these have relations to a number of American foundations.” Of these foundations, “the most important is an institution called Hooffer, at Stanford, created during the Cold War. In this institute, there is a project called Iran Democracy project, and three intelligence officers direct it: Abbas Milani, Larry Diamond, and Mike McFour.” Despite the chills the indictment sends down my spine, I chuckled when reading this. Hooffer is, of course, the Hoover Institution, not Stanford’s school of tap dance. Mike McFour is the esteemed academic Michael McFaul.
The indictment goes on to describe my past by declaring that “Abbas Milani was imprisoned under Mohammed Reza period for working with a leftist group. He later became a fervent royalist, so much so that after the revolution, he lived in Iran for a couple of years, and then left for America, where he published a number of books praising the accomplishments of the Pahlavi regime.” In actuality, I lived in Iran for the seven years following the revolution, as well as the four preceding it. During much of my time in prison, I was in the company of future Islamic luminaries–men like Montazeri, Taleghani, Rafsanjani, and Mahdavi-Kani. I suspect in the soon-to-be-prepared indictment against Rafsanjani, this coincidence of life will absurdly date the beginning of our “conspiracy.”
Surely my friends at Hooffer will be jealous that I’m assigned such an outsized role in the indictment: “[G]radually he became one of the most important leaders of the opposition, and his one big difference with other leaders is that he has close relations with reformists inside Iran.” The indictment ends by suggesting that, “For the CIA, Abbas Milani is even more important than [the deposed Shah’s son] Reza Pahlavi, because he is in close contact with the reformists, and has defrayed the entire cost of [the reformist cleric Akbar] Ganji’s stay abroad.” For the record, I have had no contacts with the CIA. I do know that Ganji survives in the United States only by hard work–not by hand-outs and certainly none that I have given him. If the authors of this baseless indictment lived in the America, one could easily fight them in the court of law. Sadly they live in a country where they govern absolutely and with violence.
Indeed, it is only a matter of time before they apply their most ruthless methods to the likes of Moussavi, Khatami, Karubi and even Rafsanjani. These barbaric trials, these shameless and cruel spectacles, are merely a prologue.
I know I am reasonably safe here in California, but I also know that the regime has assassinated more than a hundred of its opponents–from activists and journalists to scholars and artists–in Europe. Mostly I feel a pang of shame–the shame common to the survivor spared the consequences of a great calamity, the fate of those hundred brave but shackled, dignified but tortured prisoners.
Abbas Milani is the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford, where he is the co-director of the Iran Democracy Project. His latest book is Eminent Persian: The Men and Women who Made Modern Iran, 1941-1979 (Syracuse University Press).
By Jonathan Spyer *
The key strategic process that has taken place in the Middle East in the last half-decade has been the emergence of an Iranian-led bloc of states and movements, committed to undermining the U.S.-led status quo. This bloc has a well-formulated ideology that enabled the cooperation of several quite disparate forces. In the course of 2009, however, this Iranian-led alliance has suffered a series of setbacks. These suggest that its eventual fate may not differ from previous anti-Western ideological manifestations in the region.
Central to the outlook of the pro-Iranian alliance is the notion of “muqawama” – resistance. Iran and its allies have promoted themselves as the force of tomorrow, the “sunrise bloc,” challenging what they portray as the declining power of the United States and its allies. Israel, which this bloc views as an artificial remnant of colonialism in the region, is a central target.
For a while, the muqawama bloc appeared to be racking up achievement after achievement. Iran has sidestepped international attempts to limit or slow its nuclear program. Hezbollah, its creation and client, emerged intact – and claimed to be victorious – in its 2006 fight with an ill-prepared and badly led Israel Defense Forces. The same organization went on to defend its independent military infrastructure in Lebanon, intimidating its pro-Western opponents.
In the Palestinian arena, Hamas has been able to maintain its Gaza enclave thanks to Iranian support
This is important because Iran knows the Palestinian issue remains the great legitimizing element for millions in the region. So a plausible bid for ownership of the Palestinian cause is a strategic goal for the bloc.
In the course of 2009, however, the muqawama alliance’s winning streak seems to have ended. Operation Cast Lead proved that Hamas’ belief that it could deter Israel from a major ground operation in Gaza was baseless. The organization’s confidence derived from a key item of faith guiding the Iran-led alliance – namely, that Israel is a tired and lost society no longer capable of generating the self-sacrifice necessary for successful national defense.
In Cast Lead, Israel demonstrated its ability to deliver a telling military blow to Hamas-led Gaza, at minimum cost to itself. In so doing, it also showed that the asymmetric-warfare methods developed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and applied by Hamas in Gaza are not foolproof. The silence that has emanated from Gaza since the January operation is a mute testimony to the setback suffered by Hamas and its allies.
The June 7 elections in Lebanon delivered an additional blow to the Iran-led bloc, with the unexpected defeat of Hezbollah and its allies. The movement’s rearming in the country’s south continues unabated. But there is no doubt that its inability to attain a parliamentary majority struck at the aura of invincibility and inevitability that this movement has worked to weave around itself.
Perhaps the most decisive setback to the muqawama bloc, however, has been the ongoing unrest in Iran itself. The demonstrations and protests against the rigged presidential elections there have made a mockery of the claim by Iran and its allies that they represent “popular will” in the region against corrupt pro-Western regimes.
The unrest has laid bare the mechanisms of coercion behind power in Iran. The regime is not in any immediate danger, but it is increasingly being seen, both in Iran and across the region, as just another Middle Eastern government holding power against the will of its own people. The ambition for regional hegemony, an article of faith for the radical group that includes President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, probably was always beyond the capabilities of the Islamist regime in Tehran.
Ahmadinejad had hoped to turn the rickety, corrupt regime of the mullahs into a model of successful defiance and development for the region. But this aspiration is looking farther off than it did a year ago.
Of course, the impact of these setbacks should not be exaggerated. The game is not yet decided. Iranian nuclear efforts continue apace, Hamas is holding on in Gaza, Hezbollah maintains its independent infrastructure in Lebanon.
The Arab world and the Middle East have a tendency, every few years, to fall under the spell of bright, shining lies that promise to avenge every humiliation, reverse every defeat, reestablish the rightful order. These ringing untruths and their bearers – Pan-Arab nationalism in its rightist and leftist forms, the Palestinian “guerrillas,” even the Saddam Hussein regime in the early 1990s – appear on a wave of rhetoric, ride along splendidly for a while, and then crash on the rocks of reality.
The reality, in this case, is the superior social and economic organization of Western states such as Israel, and the inability of any of these forms of politicized anger to adequately address this fact. The muqawama doctrine of Iran is the latest example. Its defeat may still be distant, but the first indications that it is likely to share the eventual fate of its predecessors have become apparent this year.
*Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Herzliya, Israel
By David Makovsky
August 7, 2009
Two and a half months after U.S. president Barack Obama and Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu first hit an impasse over the settlement issue, the dispute has not only continued, it has also grown more complex. Saudi Arabia has now rebuffed requests from Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell to pursue confidence-building measures toward Israel, even in return for a moratorium on settlement construction. Although the Obama administration has not yet leveled any public criticism against Riyadh, it continues to be critical of Israeli settlements. To move diplomacy forward, Washington will have to engage in some creative policymaking.
Stakes of the Impasse
The current U.S.-Israeli impasse comes with significant stakes. The Obama administration hopes that its efforts will promote peace talks, but so far, the president’s approach has had the reverse effect. The United States has raised Arab expectations of a settlement freeze to a level that may be impossible to meet. In fact, Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas declared that he will not negotiate with Israel without a full settlement freeze. Saudi Arabia’s refusal to cooperate with Mitchell’s peace gestures also creates speculation about whether other Arab states will keep their promises to the administration on issues ranging from reopening interest sections in Israel to lesser moves in return for Israeli action. Considering Saudi Arabia’s political clout, some Arab states may not want to be out of step with the kingdom.
The settlement impasse has also impacted the dynamic of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship. Netanyahu is known to have felt blindsided by Obama when, without advance warning, he raised the idea of a settlement freeze during their first meeting. Although U.S. officials sharply deny concerns from the Netanyahu camp that Obama’s efforts have been designed to topple the prime minister’s government from the outset, relations between the two undoubtedly got off to a bad start. Trust between leaders is a crucial asset, and the more it erodes between Obama and Netanyahu, the more difficult it will be to deal with critical issues such as the peace process and Iran.
Defining a Freeze
Appropriately, Obama focused on the Arab-Israeli peace process right from the start, realizing that U.S. presidents usually have more political capital at the beginning of their terms than after political wear and tear takes its toll. The administration’s focus on curbing settlements is not unreasonable. The expansion of settlements would be seen as an Israeli territorial enlargement, one that is exploiting the period of time during which peace prospects are uncertain and Palestinian institutions are being reformed.
The key question, however, is whether the proposed restrictions would eventually involve a complete settlement freeze in the West Bank. The Obama administration has stated that it wants Israel to stop not only outward expansion — new housing beyond current settlement construction lines, which could be seen as territorially encroaching on a future Palestinian state — but also construction within preexisting settlements, vertical or otherwise. So far, the Obama administration has not forwarded a public rationale for this stance, but privately, U.S. officials say that brokering a total freeze would be much easier than the difficult project of monitoring the expansion of each settlement.
Netanyahu opposes the freeze idea as being impractical and at best short-lived, since school classrooms, synagogues, and other similar buildings need to be built within existing settlements. (The longest Israeli commitment to a freeze, made by Menachem Begin to Jimmy Carter in 1978, was only three months.) Netanyahu worries that the suggested moratorium lacks an exit strategy, which would leave Israel as the scapegoat if the moratorium unravels. The United States, for its part, is hoping for a permanent territorial agreement, so it is less focused on this particular Israeli concern.
Netanyahu appears to have gained politically from the impasse with Obama, since Israelis see the prime minister’s position on vertical growth within settlements as reasonable and Obama’s statements as rigid. During his first premiership (1996-1999), Netanyahu pursued pro-expansion policies, but since he has taken office the second time, his aides insist that he has not allowed his government to issue new construction tenders for the West Bank. Consequently, Israeli political opposition parties and politicians have been unusually silent, in stark contrast to how they behaved in response to previous U.S.-Israeli diplomatic impasses. Obama’s deep unpopularity was reflected in one opinion poll that put his approval rating in Israel at 6 percent.
No Expansion vs. Freeze
In analyzing the freeze versus no-expansion dilemma, it would seem the main criterion should be durability. Legitimate questions arise, therefore, about the value of a short-term moratorium with exceptions for partially completed buildings, especially if a more effective no-expansion standard could be sustained until a peace agreement is reached.
Fueling the debate is a disagreement over past U.S. policy toward settlements. Israel asserts that it reached a verbal understanding with the United States in spring 2003, enabling Israel to accept the Quartet-endorsed Roadmap peace plan (formally announced at the June 2003 Aqaba summit led by former president George W. Bush), support the creation of a Palestinian state, and ultimately even withdraw from Gaza. According to the Israelis, a delegation of U.S. officials, led by then deputy national security advisor Steve Hadley, flew to Israel on May 1, 2003, to meet with Ariel Sharon to hammer out settlement principles. The two sides agreed that Israel could build within settlements so long as it constructed no new ones, engaged in no more land expropriations, and provided no financial incentives to settlers to move to the West Bank. Furthermore, any construction within settlements would be confined to the existing construction line. So long as these principles were not crossed, everything else was permitted. Bush’s national security advisor Condoleezza Rice blessed the agreement’s terms in a subsequent meeting, and the Israeli government endorsed the Roadmap on May 25, 2003. In a carefully orchestrated public letter exchange several months later, while the Gaza withdrawal was being discussed, Israel committed explicitly to demarcating the existing construction line. Former White House deputy national security advisor Elliott Abrams, allegedly intimately involved in those negotiations, has publicly and emphatically supported the existence of the verbal agreement.
Contradiction, however, surrounds the issue of the understanding. Rice purportedly told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that no such verbal agreement ever happened (which has led former members of the Bush administration to assert that Rice’s denial was due to her deteriorating ties with Israel toward the end of her tenure as secretary of state). Furthermore, some members of the Obama administration deny the understanding’s existence, insisting that top Bush administration officials never blessed the verbal agreement. Other Obama officials say that because Rice and Hadley refused requests by the Obama administration for a formal briefing, the current administration cannot be faulted. Whatever happened in 2003, Israel’s perception of the episode will cause it to question the validity of any future verbal agreement with the United States.
It is also clear that despite what did or did not happen, neither Ariel Sharon nor Ehud Olmert implemented the demarcation of the current settlement perimeter. The Bush administration seemed to have lost interest in the issue, particularly when Sharon was leading Israel out of Gaza in 2005 and when Olmert was participating in the Annapolis peace conference in 2007. And although the problem of implementation occurred before his tenure, U.S. officials admit that Netanyahu is receiving the brunt of the blame for his predecessors’ actions.
Ironically, Israel has demarcated the settlement lines, but has not transmitted the data to the United States. Baruch Spiegel, a retired Israeli general known for his fairness, was reactivated by Sharon to lead an Israeli defense ministry partly for this very purpose. The Spiegel group, which worked from 2004 to 2007, demarcated every one of the 120 West Bank settlements, as well as eighty-seven illegal Israeli outposts (including the twenty-three that began since Sharon came to power in 2001), and updated its findings every three months with the use of aerial reconnaissance. It remains unclear why Sharon and Olmert did not permit Spiegel’s work to be shared with their American counterparts.
It seems unlikely that the United States and Israel will reach a sustainable freeze on settlements, other than as a short-term symbolic gesture. Nonetheless, a more sustainable no-expansion agreement is attainable, one that deals with the central issue of territorial enlargement, which could prejudge final-status peace negotiations. The current U.S.-Israeli impasse, therefore, appears to have been avoidable. Whatever agreements did or did not happen in 2003, Israel cannot ignore that it must overcome a legacy of mistrust regarding implementation.
A resolution to the current impasse is amenable to a sustainable solution. With Spiegel’s work and U.S. satellite capabilities, the United States and Israel should be able to agree on a credible monitoring mechanism that ensures full compliance on settlement expansion. Whether Washington agrees or disagrees with less-significant details, American leaders should welcome such a development. The daunting complexity of monitoring settlement expansion should be only a short-term effort, since a permanent territorial agreement — one that once and for all decides which settlements will be annexed by Israel — should be the ultimate objective of all parties, making the discussion of minor construction details moot in the face of an accepted border.
A nonexpansion approach might have ended the current settlement impasse months ago, and genuine peace negotiations could already be in process. The current U.S. approach, however, too focused on the short-term gains of a settlement freeze, is producing nothing but diminishing returns.
David Makovsky, Ziegler distinguished fellow and director of The Washington Institute’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process, is coauthor of the 2009 book Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East (Viking/Penguin).