Archive | January, 2021

Blocking Twitter & Twitter Blocking Trump: Why We Should Worry

13 Jan

Blocking Twitter & Twitter Blocking Trump: Why We Should Worry

Living these past months in Turkey, I became quite conscious of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s efforts to shut down Twitter and other Internet platforms, as well as block access to Wikipedia. This censorship was taken in reaction to insulting and critical material about the Turkish leader and his family. Turkey also has long blocked all erotic sites that are accessible in most democratic countries, subject only to extremely lax self-censorship by platforms protecting against such sex crimes as child pornography and sex trafficking. In the liberal West there was a surge of self-righteous indignation after Erdoğan’s clampdown. Most of the complaints directed against Turkey involved allegations of encroachments on rights of free expression and accusations of unwarranted censorship by the state against critics and dissenters. 

More objectively considered a serious question is raised: should a government have the authority to limit the dissemination by social media of material derogatory to or defamatory of the elected leadership of the country, as well as have a mandate to impose limits on access to sexually explicit material in deference to public morals? Of course, the question is somewhat complicated by the ease by which such blockages can be and are widely circumvented by VPN software here in Turkey or states, such as China, which regulate platforms to prevent criticism and dissent. In this respect there is a new kind of cyber tug of war between control from the governmental center and libertarian elements in the citizenry. How this multi-dimensional struggle involving technology as well as politics unfolds is among the haunting uncertainties of the Digital Age. 

The United States now faces a variant of the same basic concern after Trump’s incitement of his followers on July 6, 2020 to launch a militant and violent demonstration at the U.S. Capitol that has shaken the foundation of American constitutionalism, symbolically and substantively. Lurid pictures of Capitol security personnel herding frightened and endangered elected high officials to safe shelter confirm, not only for Americans, but for the world this drama of right-wing sedition that certainly had the makings of a coup with various indications of support from elements in the police, military, and governmental bureaucracy. Because of Trump’s extensive use of and reliance on a private Twitter account to vent his rage, and more instrumentally, to mobilize his base, it was natural to believe that this behavior menaced the republic, and must be stopped. Since incitement to violence by Trump was being enabled by the Internet, and specifically by Twitter, its decision to suspend permanently his account was widely accepted as reasonable and desirable, and if anything long overdue. Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram followed the Twitter lead, including cancelling Trump’s  megaphone’ that facilitated reaching his millions of followers. 

Trump’s account had 88 million followers, many of whom apparently believed, and acted upon, his lies and did his bidding. There is little doubt that Twitter and other social media platforms had been long used by Trump to undermine faith in and loyalty toward constitutionalism in the United States. Such a subversive dynamic escalated after Trump’s electoral defeat on November 4th, reaching a climax with the seditious moves against the Capitol on January 6th. Only then did the tech giants take action concerted against Trump. The niche right-wing platform, Parler, lost its business support, and Apple and Google stopped selling the app, and Amazon ended its hosting service, and the impact seems to have been to put the platform at the brink of bankruptcy, and likely soon out of business. These efforts also led to more concerted Internet suppression of Nazi groups, white supremacists, and fake accounts.

In the Turkish experience the state, as personified by its leader, takes the initiative to establish filters through which only news acceptable to the state can reach the public, consolidating its authority with respect to permissible knowledge as well as regulating what can be publicly disseminated by Internet platforms. This kind of authoritarian approach is complemented by various actions taken by the government, directly and indirectly, to control the flow of information, including intimidation and punitive moves against more traditional TV and print journalists, which can involve loss of jobs and even imprisonment for those targeted. Should such control over social media, and indeed all public communication, be subject to regulation by an overly sensitive governmental leadership? Or is it preferable to let the winds of freedom blow without minimal authorized self-interested interference by the state?

The current U.S. situation exhibits an opposite set of issues, entrusting private sector digital giants to become self-anointed monitors of political propriety of an autocratic leader on the Internet. From one perspective, such monitoring reflects a benevolent bias toward decentralization of authority by allowing companies, rather than the state, to draw the disciplinary lines of political and moral propriety in public discourse, which if crossed, will serve as tripwire to censorship or even as here, a targeted denial of access and use rights to individuals, including the elected leader currently serving out the remainder of his time in office. From another perspective, an acceptance of such patterns of control empowers corporate and financial elites to serve as guardians of civic virtue despite their wealth and use of money that is partly responsible for the weakening of the fabric of democracy, so long  conceived as governance by ‘we, the people.’ 

In many respects these tech giants undermine and distort the interaction of diverse points of view. A truly free society depends on avoiding unhealthy concentrations of power in private sector entities that possess quasi-monopolistic influence. [For confirmation see Glenn Greenwald, “How Silicon Valley, in a Show of Monopolistic Force, Destroyed Parler,’ Information Clearing House, Jan. 13, 2021] With respect to social media, it is not only a concern about predatory economic practices, but about manipulations of the mind, and shaping the rules governing the political play of forces. Of course, incitements to domestic insurrection should not be considered ‘free expression,’ being more akin to shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater, and should be seen as exceptions to a broad tolerance of the use of social media to further disparate worldviews.

There is another issue that has been totally overlooked in the post-Capitol discussions. We need international rules and a comprehensive regime to govern transnational communications, including by social media, in the Digital Age. Incitement by words and deeds against foreign governments should be as taboo as is such behavior against our own. At present, with mainstream media complicity, the U.S. Government and the public overall feels abused by Russian hacking of government files, while engaged in a variety of such activities throughout the world ourselves. The U.S., in particular, has for many years suffered from an acute form of ‘geopolitical bipolarity’ without even noticing the cognitive dissonance of vigorously carrying out a variety of lethal schemes to destabilize foreign governments that our deep state and governing political class dislikes while denouncing as foul play even feeble attempts by foreign governments to retaliate in kind. Until we as a country adhere to policies and practices based on international law as reinforced by reciprocity, meaning desisting from behavior against others that we deplore when it threatens ourselves. Such a course of action would be a major departure from still prevailing ideas of hierarchy, American exceptionalism, and impunity that have guided U.S. grand strategy ever since the end of World War II. Our most thoughtful ideologues may praise the virtues of a rule-based liberal international order, but our geopolitical behavior sends a different message to the world.

Concretely expressed, when we allow presidential boasts about international crimes to be freely transmitted on social media headquartered in the U.S. without blinking while moving vigorously to protect the social and political order at home from those who would destroy it from within and without, a defective America-first ethic is being unwittingly endorsed. It is time to revive the prime ethical imperative: ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you,’ or more pointedly, ‘do not do to others what you would not have them do unto you.’ Otherwise the hypocrisy of domestic thought control in defense of democratic constitutionalism feeds continuing self-delusions about American innocence abroad.

As a poignant example, I think of President Trump’s inflammatory and false

boast on January 3, 2020 justifying the unlawful targeted killing a year ago by attack drone of General Qassim Soleimani of Iran while this important leader of a state was on a diplomatic mission in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi. [For critique of such a political assassination see UN Special Rapporteur Report , A/HRC/44/38 (August 2020; see also my blog, .] To allow such an international crime to be obscured by state propaganda is illustrative of a broader pattern of self-deception at home and anti-American hostility abroad. For instance, in the aftermath of this assassination, the leadership of Iraq asked that the U.S. Government remove its armed forces from the country. The fact that this has not yet happened is more a reflection of complex regional geopolitics than it is an expression of an Iraqi change of heart.

I have personally experienced abuses of such regulatory authority, informally and formally, as a response to my words and actions in solidarity with the Palestinian people in their long struggle for basic rights. The adoption of the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-Semitism is broad enough to encompass nonviolent peaceful campaigns such as BDS or public advocacy viewed as anti-Zionist or harshly critical of Israel. My Facebook postings and lectures have been occasionally blocked and cancelled as a result of such anti-democratic and misleading Internet posting purporting to guard against my ‘anti-Semitic’ views. The effect has been defamatory damage to my overall reputation, but it is of trivial consequence compared to the life-changing harm done to such important scholars (e.g. Norman Finkelstein, Steven Salaita) who lost jobs and to journalists and experts whose professional standing was seriously tarnished. Where political passions are strong and leverage is not balanced by countervailing pressures, social media platforms and mainstream media impose controls that tend to maintain one-sided and hegemonic presentations of events that should be receive balanced treatment. Not only is society deprived of debates on controversial issues needed if democracy vital, but an inhibiting message is sent out that discourages citizens from challenging the distortions of self-censorship. We grow numb, hardly noticing that ideologues such as Alan Dershowitz have their opinion pieces published and is invited as a guest expert while Noam Chomsky’s far greater forthrightness and intellectual eminence is rendered invisible because of his political views. And as it happens Chomsky, when it comes to Israel/Palestine offers a critical voice on the side of justice, while Dershowitz mindlessly sides with the oppressors. Such asymmetry is illustrative of the bitter fruit of private sector controls, abetted by some interaction with governments, over the flows of information and opinion in public space.  

For these reasons it seems a dangerous mistake to address these issues of principle under the stress of extreme conditions generated by Trump in the aftermath of the lost November elections, culminating in the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol. Given the genuine national emergency resulting from an abusive president, the ad hoc responses of social media were benevolent in this instance, despite setting off alarms about entrusting the guardianship of democracy in the Digital Age to for profit private sector actors, especially given the concentration of market control, the wealth, and the record of regressive one-sidedness not only of social media, but of more traditional print and TV outlets. [See Michelle Goldberg, “The Scary Power of the Companies That Finally Shut Trump Up,” N Y Times, Jan. 11,2021; and more pointedly, Fraser Meyers, “Like him or not, the censorship of Donald Trump has set a terrifying precedent.” Information Clearing House, Jan. 12, 2021.] 

The pre-digital political life of the United States was already severely tilted to the right as a result of allowing money to pour toxic substances on the electoral process by which public officials at all levels of society are selected, as well as to fashion media empires around quasi-fascist worldviews. There is also a dumning down effect as the opposition, especially if not aligned with Wall Street or Silicon Valley, must itself beg for money rather than focus on issues, programs, and socio-economic justice. The result is the commodification of political life where beliefs and values are monetized.

Behind the tumult is the Trump electoral defeat in 2020, which Trump falsely attributed to reality-defying fraud, a macabre fairy tale that was accepted by an astonishing 70% of those who had voted for him and even a significant number of lawmakers who probably knew better, but thought their political careers would suffer more from breaking with Trump than sticking with him. But, perhaps, more astonishing is the nature of Biden’s victory. It was a clear political victory, 306-232 in electoral college votes, and a margin just over seven million in the popular vote. Yet, in one sense it was revealingly close, and actually registered a Republican victory in the state-level elections across America. If California and New York are removed from the Biden column, Trump wins in the electoral college and, narrowly, even the popular vote. By federalist logic, a large majority of the states making up the union, endorsed the Trump presidency even in the face of his malignancy as a leader, exhibited most devastatingly his COVID denialism that cost many lives and much misery, and brought the economy tumbling down. What should we as a country learn from this movement built by such a sinister demagogic pied piper?

From another angle, if COVID had not occurred, the economy would have remained strong, unemployment low, and no health crisis present to spoil his record of ‘achievements.’ In such an atmosphere, there seems little doubt that Trump would have rather easily prevailed by a margin no smaller than his surprise victory in 2016. What do these looks beneath the surface tell us, not only about the election, but about the public and governmental acceptance of four years of governance that deepened class, ethnic, and gender differences, that hurt badly the U.S. world reputation, that adopted a catastrophic denialist stand toward climate change, that championed alternative realities and proudly proclaimed post-truth guidelines, while ignoring urgent socio-economic disparities and infrastructure.

This Trump experience requires more than censorship, whether by the state or private sector. Above all, it calls for renewed attention to the deficiencies of citizen education. We have post-modern technology in a society that still cleaves to the worst forms of superstitious pre-modern worldviews. It is time for another ‘war,’ this time a ‘war on ‘ignorance’.’ After Trump the country needs a Second Enlightenment more even than the rectification of such evils as systemic racism,  ecological disregard, and commodified democracy.

Blocking Twitter & Twitter Blocking Trump: Why We Should Worry

13 Jan

Blocking Twitter & Twitter Blocking Trump: Why We Should Worry

Living these past months in Turkey, I became quite conscious of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s efforts to shut down Twitter and other Internet platforms, as well as block access to Wikipedia. This censorship was taken in reaction to insulting and critical material about the Turkish leader and his family. Turkey also has long blocked all erotic sites that are accessible in most democratic countries, subject only to extremely lax self-censorship by platforms protecting against such sex crimes as child pornography and sex trafficking. In the liberal West there was a surge of self-righteous indignation after Erdoğan’s clampdown. Most of the complaints directed against Turkey involved allegations of encroachments on rights of free expression and accusations of unwarranted censorship by the state against critics and dissenters. 

More objectively considered a serious question is raised: should a government have the authority to limit the dissemination by social media of material derogatory to or defamatory of the elected leadership of the country, as well as have a mandate to impose limits on access to sexually explicit material in deference to public morals? Of course, the question is somewhat complicated by the ease by which such blockages can be and are widely circumvented by VPN software here in Turkey or states, such as China, which regulate platforms to prevent criticism and dissent. In this respect there is a new kind of cyber tug of war between control from the governmental center and libertarian elements in the citizenry. How this multi-dimensional struggle involving technology as well as politics unfolds is among the haunting uncertainties of the Digital Age. 

The United States now faces a variant of the same basic concern after Trump’s incitement of his followers on July 6, 2020 to launch a militant and violent demonstration at the U.S. Capitol that has shaken the foundation of American constitutionalism, symbolically and substantively. Lurid pictures of Capitol security personnel herding frightened and endangered elected high officials to safe shelter confirm, not only for Americans, but for the world this drama of right-wing sedition that certainly had the makings of a coup with various indications of support from elements in the police, military, and governmental bureaucracy. Because of Trump’s extensive use of and reliance on a private Twitter account to vent his rage, and more instrumentally, to mobilize his base, it was natural to believe that this behavior menaced the republic, and must be stopped. Since incitement to violence by Trump was being enabled by the Internet, and specifically by Twitter, its decision to suspend permanently his account was widely accepted as reasonable and desirable, and if anything long overdue. Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram followed the Twitter lead, including cancelling Trump’s  megaphone’ that facilitated reaching his millions of followers. 

Trump’s account had 88 million followers, many of whom apparently believed, and acted upon, his lies and did his bidding. There is little doubt that Twitter and other social media platforms had been long used by Trump to undermine faith in and loyalty toward constitutionalism in the United States. Such a subversive dynamic escalated after Trump’s electoral defeat on November 4th, reaching a climax with the seditious moves against the Capitol on January 6th. Only then did the tech giants take action concerted against Trump. The niche right-wing platform, Parler, lost its business support, and Apple and Google stopped selling the app, and Amazon ended its hosting service, and the impact seems to have been to put the platform at the brink of bankruptcy, and likely soon out of business. These efforts also led to more concerted Internet suppression of Nazi groups, white supremacists, and fake accounts.

In the Turkish experience the state, as personified by its leader, takes the initiative to establish filters through which only news acceptable to the state can reach the public, consolidating its authority with respect to permissible knowledge as well as regulating what can be publicly disseminated by Internet platforms. This kind of authoritarian approach is complemented by various actions taken by the government, directly and indirectly, to control the flow of information, including intimidation and punitive moves against more traditional TV and print journalists, which can involve loss of jobs and even imprisonment for those targeted. Should such control over social media, and indeed all public communication, be subject to regulation by an overly sensitive governmental leadership? Or is it preferable to let the winds of freedom blow without minimal authorized self-interested interference by the state?

The current U.S. situation exhibits an opposite set of issues, entrusting private sector digital giants to become self-anointed monitors of political propriety of an autocratic leader on the Internet. From one perspective, such monitoring reflects a benevolent bias toward decentralization of authority by allowing companies, rather than the state, to draw the disciplinary lines of political and moral propriety in public discourse, which if crossed, will serve as tripwire to censorship or even as here, a targeted denial of access and use rights to individuals, including the elected leader currently serving out the remainder of his time in office. From another perspective, an acceptance of such patterns of control empowers corporate and financial elites to serve as guardians of civic virtue despite their wealth and use of money that is partly responsible for the weakening of the fabric of democracy, so long  conceived as governance by ‘we, the people.’ 

In many respects these tech giants undermine and distort the interaction of diverse points of view. A truly free society depends on avoiding unhealthy concentrations of power in private sector entities that possess quasi-monopolistic influence. [For confirmation see Glenn Greenwald, “How Silicon Valley, in a Show of Monopolistic Force, Destroyed Parler,’ Information Clearing House, Jan. 13, 2021] With respect to social media, it is not only a concern about predatory economic practices, but about manipulations of the mind, and shaping the rules governing the political play of forces. Of course, incitements to domestic insurrection should not be considered ‘free expression,’ being more akin to shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater, and should be seen as exceptions to a broad tolerance of the use of social media to further disparate worldviews.

There is another issue that has been totally overlooked in the post-Capitol discussions. We need international rules and a comprehensive regime to govern transnational communications, including by social media, in the Digital Age. Incitement by words and deeds against foreign governments should be as taboo as is such behavior against our own. At present, with mainstream media complicity, the U.S. Government and the public overall feels abused by Russian hacking of government files, while engaged in a variety of such activities throughout the world ourselves. The U.S., in particular, has for many years suffered from an acute form of ‘geopolitical bipolarity’ without even noticing the cognitive dissonance of vigorously carrying out a variety of lethal schemes to destabilize foreign governments that our deep state and governing political class dislikes while denouncing as foul play even feeble attempts by foreign governments to retaliate in kind. Until we as a country adhere to policies and practices based on international law as reinforced by reciprocity, meaning desisting from behavior against others that we deplore when it threatens ourselves. Such a course of action would be a major departure from still prevailing ideas of hierarchy, American exceptionalism, and impunity that have guided U.S. grand strategy ever since the end of World War II. Our most thoughtful ideologues may praise the virtues of a rule-based liberal international order, but our geopolitical behavior sends a different message to the world.

Concretely expressed, when we allow presidential boasts about international crimes to be freely transmitted on social media headquartered in the U.S. without blinking while moving vigorously to protect the social and political order at home from those who would destroy it from within and without, a defective America-first ethic is being unwittingly endorsed. It is time to revive the prime ethical imperative: ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you,’ or more pointedly, ‘do not do to others what you would not have them do unto you.’ Otherwise the hypocrisy of domestic thought control in defense of democratic constitutionalism feeds continuing self-delusions about American innocence abroad.

As a poignant example, I think of President Trump’s inflammatory and false

boast on January 3, 2020 justifying the unlawful targeted killing a year ago by attack drone of General Qassim Soleimani of Iran while this important leader of a state was on a diplomatic mission in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi. [For critique of such a political assassination see UN Special Rapporteur Report , A/HRC/44/38 (August 2020; see also my blog, .] To allow such an international crime to be obscured by state propaganda is illustrative of a broader pattern of self-deception at home and anti-American hostility abroad. For instance, in the aftermath of this assassination, the leadership of Iraq asked that the U.S. Government remove its armed forces from the country. The fact that this has not yet happened is more a reflection of complex regional geopolitics than it is an expression of an Iraqi change of heart.

I have personally experienced abuses of such regulatory authority, informally and formally, as a response to my words and actions in solidarity with the Palestinian people in their long struggle for basic rights. The adoption of the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-Semitism is broad enough to encompass nonviolent peaceful campaigns such as BDS or public advocacy viewed as anti-Zionist or harshly critical of Israel. My Facebook postings and lectures have been occasionally blocked and cancelled as a result of such anti-democratic and misleading Internet posting purporting to guard against my ‘anti-Semitic’ views. The effect has been defamatory damage to my overall reputation, but it is of trivial consequence compared to the life-changing harm done to such important scholars (e.g. Norman Finkelstein, Steven Salaita) who lost jobs and to journalists and experts whose professional standing was seriously tarnished. Where political passions are strong and leverage is not balanced by countervailing pressures, social media platforms and mainstream media impose controls that tend to maintain one-sided and hegemonic presentations of events that should be receive balanced treatment. Not only is society deprived of debates on controversial issues needed if democracy vital, but an inhibiting message is sent out that discourages citizens from challenging the distortions of self-censorship. We grow numb, hardly noticing that ideologues such as Alan Dershowitz have their opinion pieces published and is invited as a guest expert while Noam Chomsky’s far greater forthrightness and intellectual eminence is rendered invisible because of his political views. And as it happens Chomsky, when it comes to Israel/Palestine offers a critical voice on the side of justice, while Dershowitz mindlessly sides with the oppressors. Such asymmetry is illustrative of the bitter fruit of private sector controls, abetted by some interaction with governments, over the flows of information and opinion in public space.  

State Terrorism: Remembering General Soleimani

8 Jan

[Prefatory Note: 2020 hardly began when the news reported the shocking MQ9 Reaper Drone assassination of General Qassim Soleimani on Januarary 3rd shortly after he landed at the Baghdad Airport to begin a discreet diplomatic mission to reduce tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. At the time, I felt this was provocative and self-defeating, as well as unlawful and criminal, as to deed and precedent. After a year those initial reactions seem even more appropriate than they did at the time. If the United States is setting the operative rules of world politics it is doing itself no positive service by such behavior, and with drones proliferating at a rapid rate, encouraging forces of disorder, whether governments or political movements. Published below are two efforts of mine to comprehend the many facets of this most unfortunate and humanly tragic incident, which was reinforced by the apparent Mossad murder by remotely controlled explosives of the senior Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on November 27th while driving in a suburb of Tehran. The first selection is a short essay entitled ‘Remembering General Soleimani,’ and the second is an interview titled Responses Questions of Tasnim News Agency on the 1st anniversary of General Qassim Soleimani’s Assassination by U.S. drone on 3 Jan 2020.]

Remembering General Qassim Soleimani

This first anniversary of the assassination of General Qassim Soleimani, provides an occasion to remember not only the man but the nature of the act, the precedent set, and degree to which Iran and the region have become the main hunting ground of post-colonial Western imperialism. It is also relevant to take note of Mossad’s apparent responsibility for the   targeted killing of Iran’s leading nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, ten months later. Although for the world 2020 will be primarily remembered for the COVID-19 pandemic, but for Iranians, although themselves hard hit by the virus further aggravated by U.S. sanctions maintained despite many international humanitarian pleas, the year will be long primarily associated with these acts of state terror.

Without shame or even the typical ruse of ‘deniability,’ Donald Trump made no secret of his role in ordering, and even claiming credit for the killing of General Soleimani, while this stateman/military commander was arriving in Baghdad at the invitation of the Prime Minister of Iraq, Adil Abdul Mehdi, apparently to engage in discussions with Iraqi and Saudi Arabian officials with the purpose of deescalating regional tensions. Trump claimed without the slightest proof that killing Soleimani staved off an imminent attack on American diplomatic facilities. As the UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial and Arbitrary Executions, Agnés Callimard, made clear in an official Human Rights Council report concentrating on this event that the use drone weaponry to assassinate a top leader of a foreign country, without presenting a shred of evidence for the purported U.S. justification that there existed a threat of an attack on American diplomatic facilities, is more serious than a violation of international human rights law. According to her report the assassination amounts to ‘an act of war’ that violated the core norm of the UN Charter, which in Article 2(4) prohibits recourse to aggressive forms of international force. The world is fortunate that Iran did not exercise its defensive rights beyond a gesture of retaliation that caused no fatalities. The fact that the assassination occurred in Iraq, a third country, without the consent of the government was a further aggravating factor. It continues to produce calls for the withdrawal of U.S. armed forces from the country, and has bolstered those Iraqi forces demanding an end to the U.S. occupation that began more than 17 years ago.

There are additional lessons to be learned in thinking about the life and death of General Soleimani. An important lesson for Americans is to appreciate the degree to which tying their role in the Middle East to Israeli priorities brings negative consequences for the wider national interests in the region. The most important achievement of General Soleimani was to be the most effective anti-ISIS leader in the struggle against extremist barbarism in the region, which built upon his earlier efforts to weaken the Taliban in Afghanistan. In effect, the only real threat to legitimate American security interests came from ISIS, and earlier Al Qaeda. Seen in this light, to regard Iran as Enemy #1 was to misinterpret U.S. interests, and to perpetuate earlier mistakes in grand strategy, above all the 2003 attack and subsequent occupation of Iraq, in ways that were extremely costly in lives, expenses, and reputation, while producing a political outcome that realized none of the goals of this military (mis)adventure. If U.S interests in the Middle East were appraised free from distortions attributable to the Israeli lobby and the pro-Israeli bureaucracy in Washington, Netanyahu’s leverage in Washington would not exist, and long ago the U.S. Government would have taken the sensible step of normalizing relations with Iran, which would have diminished chaos and tensions thoughout the entire MENA region.

I believe that Obama arrived at the White House with the intention to achieve this reset of U.S./Iran relation. Obama tried skillfully to move out of a policy orbit shaped in Tel Aviv and Riyadh, angering the Israeli leadership to such an extent that the Trump presidency, despite its overall irresponsibility, was enthusiastically embraced by an Israel extremely displeased with the Obama effort despite its limited results. What Obama tried to do was to remove anxieties about Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the removal of sanctions, formalized in the Joint Comprehensive Program of Comprehensive Action (JCPOA) agreement unanimously supported by the P-5 membership of the Security Council plus Germany in 2015. I was surprised at the time that Iran was willing to accept a diplomatic outcome that curtailed its nuclear program without raising objections to Israel’s arsenal of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, for Israel and Saudi Arabia JCPOA was treated as a betrayal, and Trump re-bonded with these two states by repudiating and then withdrawing from this breakthrough agreement in 2018. Without question Trump seemed motivated to undo this major diplomatic achievement by his predecessor as president to dramatize his anachronistic commitment to an ‘America First’ foreign policy that rejected internationalism in all its forms. Trump also withdrew from the Paris Climate Change Agreement for similar anti-Obama, ultra-nationalist reasons.

We are led to wonder, with the advent of the Biden presidency, whether the Obama approach will be restored with respect to Iran, and if so, in what manner and with what effort to balance such an accommodating diplomacy with Iran while trying not to upset Israeli support groups too much, having witnessed at close range Israel’s dirty pushback tactics. The litmus test of Baden’s diplomacy will be revealed by whether Washington insists on more stringent limitations on Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities, and even more so, if it links its renewed participation in the JCPOA with a demand that Iran disavow its regional diplomacy in such countries as Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. Such one-sided enlargements of the scope of what is agreed beyond its nuclear program is highly unlikely to be acceptable in Iran, and for good reasons, given the interventions of Saudi Arabia and Israel in these conflicts. This anticipated reluctance would also antagonize hardline opinions in Iran, and likely partly express a lingering resentment about the targeted killing of General Soleimani, an individual who was not only beloved and revered by the Iranian people but was considered an extremely promising future president for the country, someone regarded by close Iranian observers as second in importance only to the Supreme Guide, who was beloved by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  

Q1: As you know, the US assassinated Lieutenant General Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy head of Iraq’s Hashd al-Sha’abi, and their companions by targeting their vehicles outside Baghdad International Airport on January 3. The act of terror was carried out under the direction of Trump, with the Pentagon taking responsibility for the strike. How do you see the role of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and certain Arab states in the region in killing?

R1: I have no inside information on the undisclosed connections between the states mentioned in the question and the assassination of Lieut. General Soleimani, but offer some generalizations based on the public reactions of these governments to the event and their general approach to the confrontation with Iran. Two things are clear. First, Israel and Saudi Arabia officially and explicitly welcomed the killing of Gen. Soleimani for reasons different than those put forward by the United States, while disavowing any connection with the event; secondly, the Arab governments, and even some Israeli strategists, acknowledged being wary of the possible consequences associated with feared Iranian retaliations and a regional escalation of tensions. It seemed that the most respected analysts of Israeli security interests were urging their government to do its utmost to deescalate the confrontational approach that had been previously advocated. Such moderating moves seemed to reflect an awareness of the vulnerabilities of Israel and the Gulf countries to Iranian missile attacks and overall worries about regime security. With these considerations in mind, it makes sense that these governments insisted that the U.S. acted on its own, without prior consultation or encouragement. Some reports in the Arab media alleged that Qatar should be viewed as complicit because the drone that responsible for this act of state terror was apparently launched from the U.S. Udeid air base in their country, but there was no indication of any advanced knowledge, much less participation, by Qatar before the attack was launched. The apparent reconciliation between Qatar and the Saudi-led Gulf coalition at the start of 2021 may also be interpreted as part of this moderating trend, perhaps also a cautionary reaction to the defeat of Trump’s bid for reelection and uncertainties associated with how Biden will approach the region.

Of great concern is the failure of the United Nations, especially the Security Council, to condemn the event. The UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, Agnés Callamard, did issue a report on July 6, 2020 that concluded that the targeted killing of such a prominent military leader as General Soleimani was not only a violation of international human rights law, but ‘an act of war’ that violated Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. This important report does highlight the use of drones as creating a class of weaponry that erodes the distinction between war and peace, and creates a threat to all countries and their population. The international tolerance of such state behavior is totally unacceptable, aggravated in this instance by being openly authorized by the head of state of a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council. The rapid proliferation of attack drones also adds a destabilizing dimension that makes the Soleimani killing a particularly dangerous precedent.

In short, for Israel the elimination of Iran’s most effective military commander was viewed as reducing the security threat posed by Iran’s regional influence in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, supposedly surrounding Israel with unpredictable political forces. Eliminating the architect of Iran’s regional influence was viewed as a positive  development from the perspective of Israeli security that deems itself as virtually ‘at war’ with Iran. Yet even some Israeli strategic commentary at the time of the assassination tended to worry about such a high-profile assassination being treated as an ‘act of war’ by Iran intensifying risks of an unwanted all out conflict urging, contrary to Trump and Netanyahu, offsetting concessions to Iran. Some Israeli security experts urged the unconditional revival of the JCPOA deal relating to Iran’s nuclear program and even the elimination of sanctions.

For Saudi Arabia, in particular, although insisting that it had no role in the assassination viewed it partly through the perspective of finally overcoming Trump’s refusal to respond to the psychologically and material damaging September 2019 drone attack on the state-owned Aramco oil facilities in Abqaiq and Ehurais located in eastern Saudi Arabia. These attacks although emanating from Yemen were attributed to Iran, at least indirectly. In this regard, the assassination was interpreted as responsive to the Saudi (and Israeli) criticisms of the Obama presidency’s moves toward normalization with Iran, as well as of Trump’s allegedly timid responses to prior provocations and some concern that withdrawals of American forces from Iraq, which was viewed with alarm as the beginning of U.S. strategic disengagement from the region.

 Q2: General Soleimani is viewed by the world’s freedom-seeking people as the key figure in defeating Daesh/ISIS, the world’s most notorious terrorist group, in the Middle East battles. What are your thoughts on Gen. Soleimani’s character and his role in fighting terrorism?

R2: I am aware of the revered status of Gen. Soleimani for his various roles in defense of the Iranian Revolution and in opposition to the spread of U.S. and Israeli influence in the region. He had that rare quality of being a military commander whose intelligence and political leadership were widely appreciated at all levels of Iranian society, from the Supreme Guide to the Iranian citizenry. Over the course of the last ten years there have been many reports that he was being urged to become a presidential candidate in Iran. It is significant in my view that Gen. Soleimani was killed while on a diplomatic mission mediated by Iraq to reduce tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. There is no reason to believe that the assassination was timed to disrupt such a move, but its occurrence surely had the effect of intensifying regional tensions in a highly provocative, lawless manner that generated widespread calls in Iran and Iraq for revenge and retaliation. Iran has formally issued a warrant for the arrest of Trump on charges of premeditated murder, which according to the Iranian penal code imposes a death sentence. Iran has asked Intepol for assistance in inducing police forces around the world to implement the arrest warrant.

By and large, commentators on the assassination in the West, including critics of Trump’s presidency, viewed the event from a narrow American perspective. This meant highlighting Gen. Soleimani’s role both in Iraqi violent resistance to the American occupation and in giving overall help to the general opposition throughout the region to Washington’s strategic priorities, including Hezbollah and Hamas, the Damascus government, and the Houthi insurgency in Yemen. What was not stressed, and rarely acknowledged, was Gen. Soleimani extremely effective role not only in defeating Daesh (or ISIS) in the Syria and Iraq, but also in temporarily neutralizing the Taliban in Afghanistan. As the Mossad official, Yossi Alpher, correctly noted of the fallen military leader: “He was a highly intelligent strategic thinker who understood how to wage asymmetric warfare.” Contrast this assessment with the words of Thomas Friedman, the liberal icon of American journalism, writing in an opinion piece published in the immediate aftermath of the event. Friedman praised Trump for ordering the assassination of “possibly the dumbest man in Iran and the most overrated strategist in the Middle East.” [“Trump Kills Iran’s Most Overrated Warrior,” Jan. 3, 2020.] Why dumb? Because Gen. Soleimani role in expanding Iran’s regional resistance to U.S. regional interventions prompted Washington to take major countermeasures that had an overall disastrous impact on Iran. In effect, the United States’ imperial role was legitimate, and to challenge it, was not only illegitimate but self-defeating as the killing of their leading military commander demonstrates. 

Viewing Gen. Soleimani’s role more objectively, a larger geopolitical distortion is revealed. The United States real security concerns over the course of the past twenty years were associated with eliminating threats of transnational extremist violence that culminated in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001. It is only through an acceptance of Israel’s and the Gulf monarchies’ regional priorities that made rational either the attack on Iraq in 2003 or the repeated efforts to destabilize Iran. To some extent Obama did somewhat recognize that reaching an accommodation with Iran and continuing to support the national security of Israel were not necessarily contradictory. In contrast, Trump, whether wittingly or not, subordinates U.S. national interests to the Israeli/Gulf sectarian view of Middle East politics. At this point, with the imminent prospect of Biden’s presidency there is reason to be cautiously hopeful about the formulation of a policy for the Middle East that is more coherent, less Israeli driven, less guided by impulse, and more oriented toward achieving stability rather than seeking ‘solutions’ based on coercive diplomacy.

Q3: How do you see the future of the region after the assassination of Gen. Soleimani? Do you think that foreign troops including the US forces will be forced out of the region and Iraq at people’s will?

R3: The turmoil throughout the region, along with interventions by geopolitical actors, makes predictions hazardous. There are some encouraging indications that Biden seeks to revive JCPOA as soon as possible and seeks order and moderation throughout the Middle East. Such post-Trump modifications will not be undertaken without taking Israel’s views into account, but to what extent is at present unknown. Israel will certainly try its best to condition the renewal of American participation in JCPOA on imposing new, more stringently restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Israel is also likely to insist that the U.S. receive assurances from Iran that it will no longer extend material support Islamic political tendencies in the region as exemplified by Hezbollah and Hamas. Upholding such assurances would be correlated with reducing sanctions. It seems unlikely that Iran would be willing to end its support for self-determination and human rights in Israel/Palestine, Yemen, and Lebanon, and more controversially, governmental legitimacy and counterinsurgency in Syria. And if such a political surrender were to be accepted by Iran’s current elected leadership, it would be effectively challenged from within the country.

The Arab acceptance of normalization agreements with Israel are not likely to be challenged by the Biden presidency, although brought about by American inducements, including advanced weaponry and a greater commitment of the U.S. to extend its security protection beyond Israel. In this regard, should a second Arab Spring occur in Gulf countries or Egypt, it is likely that Washington will more overtly side with the established order, no matter how repressive.

Of relevance as well is whether China and Russia will play more active diplomatic roles in the region, either seeking alignment or as offering an alternative to the American imperial presence. Such speculation depends in part on whether the U.S. adopts confrontational approaches to Russia in relation to Ukraine and Crimea and to China with respect to international trade relations and tensions in the South China Seas. Unless the U.S. disengages from its reliance on global militarism as the basis of its foreign policy, which seems highly unlikely, there are almost certain to be troubled waters in many parts of the world, including the Middle East. More than Trump, the Biden presidency is likely to adopt a foreign policy of the sort that resurrects the ‘bipartisan consensus’ that was borne shortly after the World War II, and persisted throughout the long Cold War. The essence of this consensus is the exaggeration of security threats so as to justify political support for high peacetime military budgets.

It is finally possible that energy geopolitics will also exert an influence over how relations with Iran evolve. It seems to serve OPEC’s interest to restrict Iran’s energy export markets, but if European or Asian demands rise, the reintegration of Iran in the world economy is like to receive strong backing that could change the balance in the Middle East, especially if confrontation with China dominates U.S. foreign policy in the years ahead.