Tag Archives: Biden/Blinken

[Prefatory Note: This is the third iteration of an essay on the evolution of the Ukraine War, the earlier two versions published online in Transcend Media Service (TMS) and CounterPunch. The essential argument remains: war-mongering geopolitics in the nuclear age imperils species survival and suppresses the necessity for emergency action to restore sustainable forms of ecological habitability to planet earth.]

25 Oct
RIP VAN WINKLE SLEEPS FOR 20 YEARS

Ukraine War Evolves: Who  Will Awaken Rip Van Winkle?

Disdaining Diplomacy, Seeking Victory

Ever since the Ukraine War started on February 24, 2022 the NATO response, mainly articulated and materially implemented by the U.S., has been to pour vast quantities of oil on the flames of conflict, taunting Russia and its leader, increasing the scale of violence, the magnitude of human suffering, and dangerously increasing the risk of a disastrous outcome. Not only did Washington mobilize the world to denounce Russia’s ‘aggression’, but supplied a steady stream of advanced weaponry in great quantities to the Ukrainians to resist the Russian attack and even mount counterattacks. The U.S. did all it could at the UN and elsewhere to build a punitive coalition supportive of international sanction hostile to Russia, and when this failed to gain sufficient support resorted to a range of national sanctions. The American president, Joe Biden, also breached diplomatic protocol by resorting to the demonization of Putin as a notorious war criminal unfit to govern and deserving of indictment and prosecution. This incendiary flow of state propaganda was faithfully conveyed by a self-censoring Western media filter that built public support for a Western posture of war rather than diplomacy. It did this primarily by graphically portraying on a daily basis the horrors of the war endured by the vivid portrayals of the sufferings being by the Ukrainian civilian population, something the media has been advised to avoid when dealing with U.S. regime-changing interventions or Israel’s violence and flagrant practices of collective punishment unlawfully inflicted on the Palestinian people.

This unduly provocative behavior, given the wider issues at stake, is underscored by a newly discovered West-oriented enthusiasm for the International Criminal Court, urging the tribunal to gather as much evidence as quickly as possible of Russian war crimes. This law-oriented posture is contradicted by intense past opposition to ICC efforts to gather evidence for an investigation of war crimes by non-signatories (of which Russia is one) in relation to the U.S. role in Afghanistan or Israel’s role in occupied Palestine. To some degree such one-sidedness of presentation was to be expected, and even justified given Russia’s aggression, which while irresponsibly provoked was still a breach of the most fundamental norm of international law. And yet the intensity of this NATO response in relation to Ukraine has been dangerously interwoven with an irresponsible and amateurishly pursued geopolitical war waged by the U.S. against Russia, and indirectly against China. It is so far a war fought without weapons, yet with a major potential impact on the the structure and processes of world order in the aftermath of the Cold War, further complicated by the ascent of China as a credible regional and even global rival to U.S. dominance. Such a geopolitical war proceeds on uncharted historical conditions. It is being waged in a manner oblivious to wider human security interests, and in a profound and perverse sense, contrary even to the wellbeing and fate of Ukraine and its people.

Despite the presence of these features of the Ukraine War, Western minds continue to view the conflict with one eye closed. Even Stephen Walt, a moderate and sensible self-styled realist commentator on U.S. foreign policy, and currently, a prudent, persuasive critic of the Biden failure to do his best to shift the bloody encounter in Ukraine from the battlefield to diplomatic domains nevertheless joins the war-mongering chorus by misleadingly asserting without qualification that “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is illegal, immoral, and unjustifiable..” [Walt, “Why Washington Should Take Russian Nuclear Threats Seriously,” Foreign Policy, May 5, 2022] It is not that such a characterization is incorrect as such, but unless supplemented by explanations of context it lends credibility to the war-oriented, self-righteous mentality displayed by the Biden presidency, while shielding its geopolitical war dimensions from scrutiny. Perhaps Walt and others of similar outlook were striking this posture of going along with Washington’s portrayal of the Ukraine Crisis as a tactical concession needed to be in a position to propose a Faustian Bargain of self-righteousness as a prelude to endorsing support for finally adopting a diplomatic stance toward ending the Ukraine War, and abandoning the ultra-hazardous militarist path toward victory for Ukraine and defeat for Russia. Perhaps, Walt frames his argument to gain a seat at the table with influential audiences in Washington. Understandingly believing that even their dire warnings about the rising escalation risks and to improve chances of advocacy of diplomacy will otherwise not even get a hearing from the foreign policy insiders advising Biden/Blinken. 

To be clear, even if it can be argued that Russia/Putin have launched a war that is unlawful, immoral, and unjustified, the wider geopolitical context remains imperative if peace in Ukraine is to be restored and global catastrophe avoided. For one thing, the Russian attack may be as wrong as alleged, and yet conforms to a geopolitical pattern of established  behavior that the U.S. has itself been largely responsible for establishing in a series of wars starting with the Vietnam War, and notably more recently with the Kosovo War, Afghanistan War, and the Iraq War. None of these wars were legal, moral, and justifiable, although each enjoyed a geopolitical rationale that made them seem sufficiently desirable to U.S. foreign policy elites and its closest alliance partners to be worth undertaking despite violating these norms. Of course, two wrongs do not make a right, but in a world where geopolitical actors enjoy a license to pursue vital strategic interests within traditional spheres of influence, it is not objectively defensible to self-righteously condemn Russia without taking some principled account of what the U.S. has been doing around the world for several decades. Antony Blinken may tell the media that spheres of influence became a thing of the past after World War II, but he must have been asleep for decades not to notice that the Yalta Agreement on the future of Europe reached in 1945 by the Soviet Union, United States, and the United Kingdom was premised on precisely the explicit affirmation of such spheres, which in retrospect, however distasteful in application, deserve some credit for keeping the Cold War from becoming the disaster of all disasters, World War III fought with nuclear weapons far more potent than the atomic bombs that so apocalyptically devastated the people and cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Such compromised sovereignty of these borderland countries is descriptive of the often tragic prerogatives claimed by so-called Great Powers throughout the history of international relations, not least by the United States through the Monroe Doctrine and its extensions. In this sense, Ukraine finds itself in the long unenviable position of Mexico, and indeed all of Latin America. Many years ago the famous Mexican cultural figure, Octavio Paz, proclaimed the tragedy of his country ‘to be so far from God and yet so close to the United States.’

The UN  Itself a Vehicle of Geopolitics more the International Law

In a somewhat insightful fit of frustration, George W. Bush after a failure to gain UN Security Council authorization in 2003 for the use of non-defensive regime-changing force against Iraq, declared that the UN would lose its ‘relevance’ if it failed to go along with the American imperial plan of action, and so it has. The ambiguity as to international law arises from the UN Charter own equivocation, asserting that all non-defensive uses of force are prohibited, a position reinforced by the amended Rome Statute governing the International Criminal Court by declaring ‘aggression’ as a crime against the peace, while conferring a conferring a right of veto on the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. How can this right of veto be conferred on these five states, which has the effect of precluding any Security Council decision that clashes with their strategic interests, be reconciled with the Charter and international law prohibition on aggression? Of course, Bush’s frustration was more extreme in the sense that he was expecting the Security Council to sanitize a proposed unlawful war of aggression against Iraq, that is, in a fit of unipolar arrogance, this American president expected that even the veto powers would fall in line, and offer the US/UK attacking coalition the legitimacy of UN authorization. When this was not forthcoming the U.S. did not adjust its war plans, but resorted to this dismissal of the UN.

The right of exception as embodied in the constitutional framework of the UN is not some peculiar anomaly, and the failed Bush override was an unusual rebuff of imperial geopolitics that flourished after the Cold War. It was seldom notice that such developments were indirectly anticipated by post-1945 experience of international criminal law, which from Nuremberg to the present has exempted from accountability dominant geopolitical actors, even for such incredible acts as the dropping of atomic bombs on overwhelmingly civilian targets at the end of World War II. This gray zone separating law from power continues to be the accepted playground of geopolitical actors, never so dangerous as when its prerogatives, alignments, and constraints are in flux. The Russian and Chinese challenges can be best interpreted as seeking to restore the framework of geopolitical bipolarity (or modified to accommodate tripolarity) that collapsed after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. This situation led the U.S. to fill the resulting vacuum with a militarist/neoliberal form of geopolitical management consisting of full spectrum dominance of the instruments of warfare and an ideological insistence that the legitimacy of the internal political order of a sovereign state depended on its adherence to a market-driven logic of private sector dominance at home and internationally, the s0-called ‘Washington consensus.’ The momentous open question, aside from worrying about how and when the war in Ukraine will end, is whether the geopolitical world order resting on U.S. primacy will be confirmed or modified. If confirmed it will extend the period of unipolarity that followed the end of the Cold War. If modified, it will usher in a new era of geopolitics requiring a new framework of meta-legal accommodation. In either case, there exists the additional uncertainty as to whether post-Ukraine world order will be oriented toward cooperation and the production of global common goods or with hegemonic and conflictual priorities.

Geopolitical Practice: Prudent or Irresponsible

These considerations are mentioned here not to defend, much less exonerate Russia, but to show that the world order context of the Ukraine War is deeply problematic in relation to U.S./NATO claims of normative authority, especially when invoked in such a partisan manner. In contemporary geopolitical relations, as distinct from normal state-to-state or international relations, precedent and Great Power experience generally act as substitutes for norms and rule-governed behavior, at least on matters of peace, national security, and public economic policy. What the U.S. claims the right to do and does, can be generally done subsequently by other sovereign states, especially those with some level of geopolitical entitlement. Blinken has again muddied the waters of international discourse by falsely claiming that the U.S., unlike adversaries China and Russia, is as observant of rule-governed behavior in a similar manner to that regulating the behavior of ‘normal states’ in relation to matters of vital strategic interests

To gain a clearer and more objective perspective on aspects of Russian behavior in Ukraine it seems appropriate to look back at NATO’s clearly unlawful war of 1999. This non-defensive war, unauthorized by the UN, fragmented Serbia by coercively supporting Kosovo’s claimed right of secession, including political independence and territorial sovereignty. Account should be taken of this Kosovo precedent before uncritically condemning the Russian annexation of four parts of eastern Ukraine, rationalized as the exercise of rights of self-determination in the light of alleged Serbian abuse, and supposedly validated by after administering widely condemned referenda. Yet even here an understanding of past geopolitical behavior is instructive. The NATO military victory didn’t even bother with a referendum before implementing Kosovo’s secession.

The point is not to condemn all such undertakings without legal authority by recognizing that there may be extreme cases where the fragmentation of existing states is justifiable on humanitarian grounds and others where it is not, but to claim that Russia overstepped the limits of law in a context where power has been consistently shaping behavior and political outcomes in similar cases is to prepare the public for a wider war rather than leading it to seek and be pragmatically receptive to a diplomatic compromise. In effect, I am arguing for the wisdom and virtue of what might be described as geopolitical humility and self-restraint: do not require of others, what you have yourself done, or at the very least explain non-polemically what is the difference between say Dombas and Kosovo that makes the former unlawful and illegitimate and the latter lawful and legitimate. In the complexity of internal struggles of a beleaguered ethnic or religious minority it is along the same lines helpful to acknowledge that Moscow and Washington ‘see’ the same realities of the Dombas and Kosovo in contradictory ways.

This contextual understanding of the Ukraine War is in my judgment highly relevant as it makes the current fashion of mounting legal, moral, and political arguments of condemnation distract attention and energies from following otherwise rational, prudent, and pragmatic courses of action, which from day one of the attack on Ukraine strongly supported the wisdom of making an all-out effort to achieve an immediate ceasefire followed by negotiations aiming at durable political compromises not only between Russia and Ukraine, but also between Europe/U.S. and Russia. That the U.S. Government never to this day has publicly manifested any such interest, much less setting forth a commitment to stopping the killing and devastation by encouraging diplomacy, in the face of mounting costs and escalation risks associated with prolonging the warfare in Ukraine. Such geopolitical recklessness should be shocking to the conscience of peace-minded persons and patriots of humanity everywhere.

Beyond the immediate zones of combat, catastrophic costs are presently being borne by many vulnerable societies throughout the world from the spillover effects of the war, magnified by anti-Russian sanctions and their major impact on food and energy supplies and pricing. Such a deplorable situation, likely to get worse as the war goes on and likely intensified in the coming Winter months. Beyond this it is now also bringing closer to reality the growing danger of the use of nuclear weapons as Putin’s alternatives may be narrowing to a personal willingness to accept responsibility for a Russian defeat or to give up his status as autocratic leader. While not relenting a bit on implementing an aggressive approach to gaining Ukraine’s ambitions of victory, Biden himself incredibly acknowledges that any use of even a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine would with near certitude lead to Armageddon. This paradoxical duality (combining escalating the war and anxiety as to where it might lead) seems more like a mindless embrace of geopolitical insanity than a sobering balancing of the contradictory somber realities at stake in Ukraine. We can ask when will this Rip Van Winkle of our time awaken to the realities of the nuclear age?

As always actions speak louder than words. Blinken facing a rising public clamor for negotiations, especially in Europe, responds with his usual feckless evasions. In this instance, contending that since Ukraine is the victim of Russian aggression it alone has the authority to seek a diplomatic resolution and the U.S. will continue to support Ukraine’s maximal war aims, supposedly, for as long as and for whatever it takes, including recently even the extension of Ukraine war aims to the recovery of Crimea, which has been widely accepted internationally as reabsorbed by Russia since 2014.

Context also matters in relation to the conduct of the war. Its major escalation within the month of the sabotage of Nord Stream1 & 2 gas pipelines to Europe, which Blinken once more confounded by this act of sabotage outside the war zone by calling it ‘a tremendous opportunity’ to make weaken Russia and force Europe to intensify their efforts to gain energy independence. Such an operation initially implausibly attributed to Russia by the U.S., yet later more or less acknowledged as part of the expansion of the war by reliance on ‘terrorist’ tactics of combat. This latest expression of state terrorism is the suicide bombing of the strategic Kerch Straight Bridge on October 7th, connecting Crimea and Russia, a major infrastructure achievement of the Putin period of Russian leadership, as well as a symbolic expression of relinking Crimea to Russia serving as a supply line for Russian troops operating in the Southern parts of Ukraine. These extensions of the combat zone and tactics beyond the territory of Ukraine contain the fingerprints of the CIA and seems designed as encouragement of Ukrainian resolve to go all out for a decisive victory, sending Putin unmistakable signals that the U.S. remains as unreceptive as ever to a responsible geopolitics of compromise. Biden reportedly refuses even to respond favorably to Putin’s apparent initiative that the two leaders discuss their differences at the G-20 meeting in Indonesia. Biden’s characteristic response was a defiant refusal, subject only to reconsideration if the meeting was limited to negotiating the release of an American female pro basketball player being held in Russia on drug charges. The U.S. anger directed at Saudi Arabia for cutting its oil production is an additional sign of a commitment to a victory scenario in Ukraine as well as a reaction against the Saudi resistance to U.S. hegemonic geopolitics in its co-management of OPEC+ with Russia. With such provocations, it is hardly surprising, although highly unlawful and immoral, for Russia to retaliate by unleashing its version of ‘shock and awe’ against the civilian centers of ten Ukrainian cities. Such is the course of these vicious cycles of escalation characteristic of the lawlessness of major warfare! The neglect of the relevant and shameful American precedents in Iraq and Afghanistan is also integral to sustaining a war mentality under siege.

Concluding Observations

Always lurking in the background, and at Ukraine’s and the world’s expense, is Washington’s geopolitical opportunism, that is, seeking to defeat Russia and deter China from daring to challenge the hegemonic unipolarity achieved after the Soviet disintegration in 1992. This huge investment in its militarist identity as the sole ‘global state’ that best explains such a cowboy approach to nuclear risk-taking and the tens of billions expended to empower Ukraine at a time of internal suffering in the U.S. and elsewhere coexisting with such a costly expression and dangerous expression of international overreach.

Such a tragic political drama unfolds as the peoples of the world and their governments, along with the United Nations, watch this horrendous spectacle unfold, seemingly helpless witnesses not only to stop the carnage, but also to do their best to curtail the spillover and Armageddon dangers, and even to react meaningfully against the potential supreme damage to their own national destinies.

The Problematics of Middle Eastern Diplomacy: The Case of Iran

2 Feb

[Prefatory Note: this is a modified, updated version of an article published in CounterPunch, January 30-31, 2022.][*]

The Problematics of Middle Eastern Diplomacy: The Case of Iran  

When a nuclear agreement with Iran was reached by U.S.- led multilateral diplomacy in 2015, despite vigorous opposition from Israel, it was widely viewed as the greatest foreign policy achievement of the Obama presidency, and for good reason. It also showcased the potentialities of great power cooperation when national interests sufficiently converge in a manner that supports the pursuit of the regional and global public good. In those days before Washington’s strategists and foreign policy wonks rediscovered the joys of geopolitical confrontation, not only the major NATO powers (UK, France, and Germany), but more intriguingly, China and Russia, joined as signatories to what became known at the time as the 5 +1 Iran Nuclear Agreement or simply, JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).

That Iran was willing to curtail its nuclear program without demanding compensating moves by Israel remainss a surprise. Decades earlier Israel had been permitted, indeed helped, to acquire secretly the means to establish and develop a nuclear weapons capability without any adverse international reaction, becoming in 1967 or so the first state in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons, although discreetly, to avoid embarrassment for the geopolitical promoters of a anti-proliferation approach to the risks posed by nuclear weapons. It would have seemed reasonable for Iran to have adopted a posture of willingness to commit itself to a nuclear-free Middle East, which would have been a more dramatic move toward denuclearizing the Middle East than was JCPOA. Why did Iran refrain in 2015 and now again, even with a hardline leadership in control of its government? Perhaps, because the Iranian leadership understood there was no prospect of sanctions relief if it depended on Israel’s willingness to give up its status as a nuclear weapons state. In this sense, the 2015 agreement can be interpreted either as a diplomatic triumph by the P-5 + 1 in so limiting the negotiating agenda, and especially the U.S., or as an indication that Iran was prepared to close its eyes to the unreasonableness of demanding restrictions on its nuclear program while ignoring the far greater breach of the nonproliferation ethos by Israel over a period of many years. Iran apparent willingness to accept such a bargain can only be explained by the high priority given to ending the societal devastation being wrought by the sanctions. It appears that the 2021-2022 Vienna talks among the five adherents to JCPOA (plus indirect talks with the U.S.) have similarly not been faced with demands to address Israel’s nuclearism, quite possibly for similar reasons.  

Why did this exhibition of constructive diplomacy happen in a region of the world, entailing overlooking Israel’s arsenal of nuclear weapons coupled with its belligerent posture so as to reduce tensions with regard to Iran, which had long been a major site of struggle, strife, and periodic warfare ever since 1979? I presume the main motivation was war avoidance in the Middle East and the belief that JCPOA contributed to the overall goals of nonproliferation and thus avoided a regional arms race by major Arab states to acquire nuclear weapons in the event that Iran crossed the nuclear threshold.

A secondary consideration prompted by the lingering failures of the Iraq ‘democracy promotion’ regime changing intervention of 2003 was to reduce the level of American military and political engagementsd in the Middle East. The 2015 initiative to downgrade Iran as a confrontational priority was seen as facilitating Obama’s ill-advised ‘pivot to Asia.’
Proclaiming this pivot amounted to geopolitical coded message for ‘taking on China in the South China Sea.’ How different might the mood and politics have been had Obama instead opted for a ‘pivot to America!’ And even now it may not be too late for a turn away from global militarism, although Biden, frustrated in achieving his campaign promises by Republicans on the home front, now seems hell-bent on pivoting toward Russia, Iran, and China, all at once. Biden seems to be yearning for the good old days of the crisis-fraught geopolitics of the Cold War with the most opportune zones of confrontation currently being the Ukraine, Iran, and Taiwan.

A side benefit of the 2015 agreement, not often noted, was to give moderates in Iran a major victory in the form of achieving sanctions relief, unfrozen bank accounts, and a path to normalcy in their external relations. The agreement was vigorously opposed at the time by Israel and its supporters, as well as hawkish elements in the U.S. political class. Their main contentions were that Iran would be free from enrichment and centrifuge limits by 2030 and that the agreement did not include an enforceable Iranian pledge to end support for anti-Israeli, anti-Saudi, and anti-American political actors in regional conflict situations as well as to place restraints on its missile program. Iran has adamantly insisted on separating diplomacy concerning its nuclear program from its political involvements in regional politics and its national security posture. In effect, although willing to overlook Israeli nuclearism, Iran has been steadfastly unwilling to alter its sovereign independence with respect to foreign policy or

In relation to the non-nuclear elements of its national security posture.  

When Trump came along in 2017, the unraveling of JCPOA was a foregone conclusion, guided as much or more by his vindictive resolve to erase Obama’s legacy in ways designed to degrade and denigrate the achievements of his predecessor, while gaining praise from Israel, many members of the U.S. Congress, and militarists in and out of government. Trump somewhat absurdly denounced the agreement as one-sided in Iran’s favor, a betrayal of Israel’s security interests, and thus calling for replacement by a more stringent arrangement, or according to his transactional mindset, ‘a better deal.’ In May of 2018 Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement, followed that June by the reimposition of sanctions, which were later further intensified inflicting great damage on the Iranian economy and civilian population. These moves were all part of a comprehensive approach to Iran that came to be known as ‘maximum pressure.’ These escalating steps toward confrontation were hailed by Israel’s leaders. In contrast, the repudiation of JCPOA was not appreciated by the five other signatories, and deeply destabilizing for the region as well as striking a devastating blow to the reformist government in Tehran led by President Hassan Rouhani, having the effect of opening the gates for the hardline victory of Ebrahim Raisi in the 2021 elections. It also led to retaliatory action by Iran, especially attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

In Tehran this return to the tense pre-2015 days was regarded as confirmation that the West, and especially the U.S., could not be trusted to keep its word and was regarded as evidence that Washington remained determined to bring the Iranian government to its knees in pursuit of its political agenda. Trump had also authorized the assassination of General Qasim Soleimani in early 2020, the most popular of Iranian leaders and seen as a future president of the country. In such an atmosphere Israel felt emboldened enough to assassinate Iran’s leading nuclear scientists and to engage in unlawful sabotage attacks on its nuclear facilities without adverse effects.

As might have been expected, Iran although it gave the remaining JCPOA signatories a year to overcome the U.S. withdrawal, eventually responded by gradually increasing the enrichment of uranium fuel that were somewhat closer to weapons grade levels, reportedly reaching 60% as well as installing higher quality centrifuges. Despite these steps, Iran reiterated its intention not to develop nuclear weapons on numerous occasions, and Western intelligence services confirmed that there was no evidence that Iran was intent on becoming a nuclear weapons state in the near future. Israel and its supporters issued alarmist statements suggesting that Iran was only weeks away from have the bomb, and was determined to become a nuclear weapons state.

When Trump was defeated and Biden elected in 2020, it was naively assumed to be just a matter of time until the 2015 Agreement was restored, and again made operational. After all, Biden had pledged to do so throughout his campaign to become president. It turned out to be far from simple in practice, partly because there was plenty of pushback from Israel and Republicans, and a lack of enthusiasm on the part of many Democrats. In the meantime, the leadership in Iran shifted, with a conservative cleric, Ebrahim Raisi easily elected to replace Rouhani in early 2021. It is relevant to observe that Raisi was a pre-Trump advocate of skepticism about the wisdom of trying to reach a diplomatic accommodation with the West. Despite this background, after being elected Raisi has seemed open to restoring JCPOA, yet entertaining this option in an understandable spirit of caution, suspicion, and firmness. Despite pressure from Washington, Iran has refused so far to engage in direct talks, now in their eighth round, with the U.S. in Vienna. Iranian officials have been telling the media that Iran is awaiting reliable signs from the U.S. that it is prepared to remove all sanctions without conditions accompanied by guaranties that it will not again withdraw from whatever arrangement is agreed upon. Once such a willingness is signaled, if it is, Iran will agree to direct talks. Until then, it will discuss the issues directly only with governments of the remaining five signatories, that is, 5+1 minus the U.S., allowing the co-signatories to serve as intermediaries in what amount to pre-negotiations with Washington the purpose of which seems to be to allow Tehran ascertain whether negotiations of the U.S. return to the 2015 framework will be fruitful. Iran seems determined not seem so weak as to accept whatever arrangement the U.S. insists upon, or to be in a position of being portrayed as a deal-breaker when it refuses the conditions set by the American negotiators.  

Beyond the obstacles associated with satisfying Israel’s alleged security concerns and a determination not to get mired in controversial foreign policy initiatives, Biden sought in the early months of his presidency to focus on domestic issues, especially the social and economic fallout from the pandemic. This meant an avoidance of even the semblance of a break with Israel, which helps explain why the White House made a series of unusual high-profile gestures to reassure Israel that the U.S. would not act unilaterally in negotiating the renewal of its participation in the 2015 agreement, but would coordinate with Israel its negotiating efforts to restore JCPOA. The only way for Biden to find such a level of approval by Israel for a restored nuclear agreement with Iran is if the new arrangements appeared to strengthen the constraints of the 2015 text by removing sunset clauses terminating vital features of the agreement, and through inclusion of more stringent monitoring and verifying procedures to assess compliance with permanent restrictions on enrichment, testing, stockpiling, and centrifuges. The U.S. has also signaled that the pace of sanctions relief would be quickened if Iran additionally pledged to roll back its political engagements hostile to the interests of the Gulf monarchies, Israel, and the U.S.. These engagements by Iran are supposedly currently causing trouble for Western interests in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Lebanon, and Gaza.

Matters of Context

Most important is the acknowledgement and relevance of the Trump withdrawal from the 2015 agreement because he (following Israel’s encouragement) thought it a bad deal. Because Iran reacted, at first cautiously, hoping for some compensatory actions from the European countries, which was never forthcoming. It seems obvious that Iran wanted the agreement to survive the U.S. withdrawal, but not at the cost of enduring the renewal of sanctions. With the present effort to restore JCPOA the U.S. acts as if it doesn’t even owe Iran an apology to Iran but seeks to condition its renewal of participation on the acceptance by Iran of a new more restrictive agreement, policy goals partly dictated by domestic circumstances. Anything less, will be openly attacked by Trumpists and by Israel, at least by the Netanyahu-led Likud opposition party.

The peculiarities of American politics should have been put aside in the Vienna diplomacy, and not heightened expectations about what it was reasonable to demand from Iran. If this was politically untenable, then Biden should have been willing to confess that his campaign pledge to restore American participation in the JCPOA was ill-considered. After all, from Iran standpoint it would have been reasonable to expect not only an apology and some compensation for the damage done to Iranian society by the post-2018 Trump sanctions. Instead Washington acts as if it is doing Iran a favor by rejoining and it is Iran that should be willing to accept more U.S. participation. 

It is important to appreciate the broader context of both the 2015 agreement and this attempt to renew compliance by both the U.S. and Iran with or without an alteration of its terms. To begin with, as mentioned, the 5 +1 group should recognize that Iran’s willingness to curtail its nuclear program without reference to Israel’s nuclear weapons, constituted a major concession without which negotiations would have been fruitless from their outset. It should also be appreciated that a genuine concern with nonproliferation, regional stability, and the equality of states would have made it reasonable for Iran to insist on prior Israeli denuclearization or parallel negotiations of a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone. What is more, such an inclusive approach to regional denuclearization would have served the regional and global public good. At the same time, for Iran to condition negotiations curtailing its own nuclear program by linkage to Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal would preclude any diplomatic attempt to end Iran’s suffering from sanctions. It seems virtually certain that Israel would refuse all efforts to call into question its national security posture, including its right to possess and develop nuclear weaponry, and almost as certain that the U.S. and Europe would not exert pressure on Israel to link its relationship to the weaponry with efforts to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program never crossed the nuclear threshold.

Related to this, is the failure of Iran in its public discourse to condition its willingness to accept international controls be tied to an acceptance by Israel and the U.S. of a commitment to refrain from destabilization efforts to undermine the authority of the Iranian government or to damage its nuclear facilities by covert operations. In other words, Iran has not conditioned its participation in the 2015 agreement or its renewal on respect for its sovereign rights as prescribed under international law. This again is a meaningful indication of the importance Iran attaches to sanctions relief and overall normalization.

During this period of diplomatic uncertainty, Iran’s diplomacy has not been passive. The January drone attacks on Abu Dhabi by Houthi rebel forces in Yemen are assumed in the West to be undertaken with the approval of Tehran, and may be thought of as a setoff to Israel’s periodic attacks and threats directed at Iran, as well as a neutralizing response to the anti-Iranian moves of the Gulf monarchies. Whether the political allies of Iran in the region can be considered ‘Iran proxies,’ as contended in the Western media, is somewhat fanciful.

From the Western perspective, Iranian efforts to disregard the constraints of JCPOA seem to suggest an Iranian ambition to be at least a threshold nuclear weapons state, that is, capable of acquiring nuclear weapons in a matter of weeks. It remains ambiguous as to whether Iran is seeking leverage in the bargaining process currently underway or indeed had become disillusioned with accepting restraints in exchange for shaky promises of sanctions relief in light of Trump’s 2018 withdrawal, and the failure of the other parties to the agreement to step in to neutralize the imposition of harsh sanctions. In light of this history, it seems reasonable for Iran to demand a commitment against withdrawal or the reimposition of sanctions, although it may

not be implementable within the constitutional frameworks of the 5 + 1 states. For example, if Trump is reelected in 2024, it seems a near certainty that he would repeat his moves of 2018 without meaningful internal legal or political obstruction, especially given the conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court. If the restored agreement took the form of an international treaty, its legal durability might be enhanced, but such an instrument would require submission to the ratification procedures of the participating countries. Such a requirement would undoubtedly doom the agreement as the Republicans in the U.S. Congress, probably with help from some Democrats, would block ratification, which in any event would have to gain a 2/3rds majority in the Senate.

The broader context should not be overlooked. Imposing sanctions on Iran in relation to its nuclear program is unlawful as even the nonproliferation treaty does not impose such restrictions, making the sanction an unlawful exercise of force. Beyond this, foregoing nuclear weapons is from the perspective of international law a voluntary matter. The NPT gives parties to the treaty a right of withdrawal on the basis of supreme national security interests to be explained by an official explanation. Israel has resisted pressures to join the NPT, which would remove its ability to hide behind a refusal to admit or deny the possession of nuclear weapons.

Geopolitical Spillovers

If the agreement were to be restored within the JCPOA framework with minimal modifications, and is then implemented, including a show of tacit respect exhibited by Israel and, most importantly, if the promised sanctions relief is forthcoming and expeditiously implemented, the likelihood of a stabilizing impact on regional and global relations would greatly increase. It would also strengthen the political position of Raisi in Iran, claiming that greater diplomatic firmness yields better results.

If the Vienna talks fail, however, then the prospects for a heightening of regional tensions is likely, taking the form of intensifying anti-Iranian confrontational tactics, maintenance of sanctions, and a reactive Iranian pushback by way of asserting its leverage in regional hot spots. The likelihood of Iran’s alignment with Russia and China also becomes probable, already foreshadowed by long-term trade agreements, high-profile diplomatic visits, and recent joint naval training exercises. Again, the Raisi leadership will likely be strengthened by the claim that diplomacy failed, interpreted as showing the unwillingness of Raisi to fall into the kind of trap that occurred when the moderate leadership of Rouhani took the poisoned bait in 2015. The increased availability of reliable geopolitical alternatives that would ease the economic hardships long experienced by the Iranian people would also work to Raisi’s advantage.

Israel’s mood in its comparable post-Netanyahu phase exhibits continuity its stand of belligerent hostility toward Iran consisting of coercive diplomacy and threatened military strikes, combined with a major effort to expand the normalization accords, which was the final Trump gift to Israel, strongly affirmed by the Biden leadership. Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog’s, January visit to the UAE exhibited both the belligerence and the spirit of Israeli post-normalization self-confidence. While visiting the “Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi spoke these alarming words: “There are only two alternatives in this region. One is peace, prosperity, cooperation, joint investments and a beautiful horizon for the people, or alternatively, or alternatively what Iran is doing, which is destabilizing the region and using its proxies to employ terror.” This kind of language boils down to normalization for Israel, confrontation for Iran, the forces of stability versus the forces of chaos and terror, good versus evil.

As if to confirm my worst fears, Israel conducted at the beginning of February a huge air force drill off its coast to simulate what the Times of Israel called ‘a massive attack’ on Iran’s nuclear facilities. These military exercises included dozens of F-15, D-16, and F-35 fighter jets, and featured what was described as the unusual presence of an officer of U.S. Air Forces as an ‘observer’ of such classified military exercises. Among the practice maneuvers tested were mid-air refueling operations, long-range military strikes, and responses to anti-aircraft fire. This provocative event was reinforced by extra Israeli budgeting to fund preparations for a military attack on Iran and a formal statement by the Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, that regardless of whether an agreement is reached in Vienna, Israel reserves the right to protect its population by the means of its own choosing. The stunning silence of Biden/Blinken in the face of this belligerent independence and military drum beats by Israel should be deeply disturbing for all those wishing for stability, peace, and justice in the Middle East. Silence in such a context amounts to complicity in unlawful threats to engage in aggressive use of force with grave implications for regional peace and security.  

Concluding Observation

It is way past time for the West to get over its distress about the outcome of the Iranian revolution that brought the popular movement headed by Ayatollah Khomeini to power in early 1979. In 2015 the JCPOA seemed a step in that direction, soon to be spoiled by the disruptive Trump behavior. With a new president the U.S. Government was positioned to take the initiative in reinvigorating the JCPOA, acting in ways that that would engender hopes of a new dawn of peaceful relations in the Middle East, an end to the prolonged misery of the Afghan, Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian and Palestinian people. Unfortunately, assuming my analysis is correct, this desirable course of action now seems extremely unlikely. The Biden administration seems disinclined to accept any U.S. responsibility for the breakdown of the 2015 agreement, and unreasonably expects Iran to start from a premise of co-responsibility, or worse, without taking account of the fact that JCPOA worked well until the U.S. withdrew. Israel remains defiant. And as for the Palestinians, who have been wrongly treated as disinterested bystanders, already disappointed by Biden’s decision to go along with several of the most blatantly partisan moves in favor of Israel during the Trump presidency. It is foolish to expect anything more from Biden than a more moderate style of pro-Israeli solidarity, and few course corrections as to the way Trump faciliated unlawful Israeli expansionism. In relation to both Iran, Israel, and Palestine, the essential message sent by the new leadership is continuity when it comes to substance combined with a resumption of the pre-Trump pretension of equi-distance diplomacy when it comes to the search for a sustainable peace. 


[*] Richard Falk is Professsor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University; Chair of Global Law, Queen MaryUniversity London; author of Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim (Clarity Press, 2001).

The Geopolitics of the Normalization Agreements

10 Mar

Listen Closely to the Israeli Discourse in an American Liberal Idiom: Geopolitical Dreams, Ethical Nightmares


Thomas Friedman is both an echo of the liberal establishment and a media force to be reckoned with when it comes to post-cold war, post-Trump America. Known for championing the excesses of modernity by conceiving of technology, markets, capital flows, permissive social norms, and science-based truth and rationality as alone capable of offering promises of a good life for everyone. Friedman’s tone has always been arrogant and condescending. He is never shy about offering the rich and powerful the benefit of his technocratic wisdom. When it comes to foreign policy especially in the Middle East, and most particularly where Israel is involved, Friedman seeks to mount a guru’s pedestal so as to position himself above the fray, yet he never departs from the party line that unconditionally affirms Israel while being blind to Palestinian grievances and hostile to Palestinian resistance and global solidarity initiatives. In other words, Friedman is to liberal Zionism, what Sheldon Adelson was to militant Zionism as epitomized by the Netanyahu leadership, but whose stance is endorsed by the spectrum of right-wing political parties in Israel that dominate the scene when it comes to victimizing the Palestinian people. 

Yet even judging by the low standards that Friedman has set for himself over the years, his most recent NY Times opinion piece was as grotesque as informed commentary on the Middle East can become, especially if read carefully, and with a critical eye. Published as an opinion piece on March 2nd with a title that is as foolishly flippant as the text that follows is pernicious: “Jumping Jehoshaphat: Have You Seen How Many Israelis Just Visited the U.A.E.” As if Israeli shopping trips to Dubai or Abu Dubai are political signposts indicating that the region has started to overlook the Palestinian struggle for basic rights, and get on with the more important work of servicing consumers and tourists. If a spike in U.A.E. shopping is one sign, the ICC decision of February 5th to proceed further with investigate well-evidenced allegations of Israeli criminality in Occupied Palestine points in quite a different direction. It seems revealing that this latter development does not warrant even a nod of recognition in Friedman’s warped imagination that heeds market signals far more than international law grievances, especially if put forth by adversaries of the U.S. or Israel.

It is tempting to deal comprehensively with the several perversions of policy encountered in the course of a journalistic piece of less than 1,000 words, but I will mention only those that seem most outrageous from the perspective of law, morality, and transparency. The piece can be read as above all a promotional boost for the normalization agreements reached in the last weeks of the Trump presidency, a triumph of Washington bullying governments. It not only gave Israel a big political victory but helped show the folks back home that Trump’s style of diplomacy succeeded where his more highminded predecessors had failed. Despite being a strident critic of Trump in conformity with his liberal persona, Friedman has this to say about the normalization agreements, which he further blesses by adopting the self-glorifying name of the Abraham Accords bestowed by supporters: “I believed from the start that the opening between Israel, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan—forged by Jared Kushner and Donald Trump could be game-changing.” Not a word about the arms deals and diplomatic payoffs made to twist the arms of the Arab governments, and not even a notation that this normalization ploy was the Trumpist culmination of carrying pro-Israeli partisanship to its extremes, which meant proceeding as if the Palestinians are to be seen nor heard as little as possible, and certainly never acknowledged.

Friedman goes on to say that it is too soon to know whether this good news will go further, recalling his disappointment that the once seemingly hopeful bonding of Israel with Lebanese Christians in the early 1980s turned out to be a ‘shotgun wedding and divorce.’ This meant that this promise an Arab-Israeli rapprochement was nothing more than a disillusioning house of cards that failed to produce lasting results of achieving peaceful relations with Arab countries without the inconvenience of doing something for the Palestinians. Again, it is the silences that are the most revealing aspect of Friedman’s lament. There is not a word in the column that the peak moment of bonding between Israelis and Lebanese Christians came during the Lebanon War of 1982, reaching its dramatic climax when Israel’s IDF collaborated with the Maronite militias in overseeing the civilian massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. To lament the breakdown of this ill-fated marriage of convenience, without noting one of the starkest mass atrocities of the past half century in the region, is a typical embodiment of Friedman’s hypocritical morality and opportunistic geopolitics. Friedman does not stop there. He adds a gratuitous insult directed at Hezbollah coupled with a passing slur directed at Iran because it supports Hezbollah, and thus has the temerity to challenge Israeli/Saudi/U.S. phantasies.

Bad as is this foray into the tragic realities of Lebanese politics, worse is to come. Friedman regards the real payoff of the Trump normalization process is situated in the future. He conjectures that a parallel agreement with Saudi Arabia would be the crown jewel of the process, opining that such “..normalization would be huge for both Israel-Arab and Jewish-Muslim relations.” At the same time, Friedman reluctantly recognizes that the murder of Kamal Khashoggi is seen by some as an awkward impediment to reach this proclaimed goal. Here is how Friedman frames the grisly event: “The CIA-reported decision to have Saudi democracy advocate Jamal Khashoggi, who a long-time U.S. resident, killed and dismembered was utterly demented—an incomprehensible response to a peaceful critic who no threat to the kingdom.”

The language, as always with Friedman is revealing in ways that should make this journalist of post-colonial imperialism squirm. Why the word ‘demented,’ meaning bizarre action without rational justification, when the act in question was a wonton criminal abuse of power, accentuated by the misuse of diplomatic facilities to carry out an act of aggravated state terror—the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Further that the killing Khashoggi was ‘incomprehensible’ because it served no state purpose since there was ‘no threat to the kingdom.’ Cynical and hypocritical to the core: Hezbollah is demeaned for no reason, while a much deserved condemnation of MBS is sidestepped by Friedman’s rather implausible claim of being mystified by what he portrays as the senseless murder of Khashoggi a harmless critic of Mohamed bin Salmon’s Saudi imperium. Having taken note of the bloody deed, Friedman makes his priorities unmistakable by giving a green light to the nefarious business of geopolitics. Friedman always ready to provide unsolicited advice, without pausing for a breath of fresh air, observe that while “[t]he Biden team is still sorting out how it will relate to MBS” it remains right “to insist that that America will continue to deal with Saudi Arabia in general as an ally.”

Without the slightest show of moral inhibition, Friedman cuts to the chase, affirming the triangular relations between Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States as a constructive partnership in the region. He celebratory mood is expressed as follows: “If the Abraham Accords do thrive and broaden to include normalization between Israeli and Saudi Arabia, we are talking about one on the most significant realignments in modern Middle Eastern history, which for many decades was largely shaped by Great Power interventions and Arab-Israeli dynamics. Not anymore.” Again, this realignment is presupposed to be a constructive development without any indications of qualifications either by reference to the dangers of inclining the region even more toward a military confrontation with Iran or by acting as if the daily Palestinian ordeal was not worth addressing in the course of assessing such a diplomatic misadventure.

Friedman does go on to contend implausibly that in such an altered diplomatic environment, Israel might become more amenable to a two-state solution without even pausing to point out that even under pressure, Israel never wanted to co-exist with a viable Palestinian state, and now with the rightward drift of its internal politics and its guaranty of continued unconditional support in Washington, it no longer needs to pretend. The accelerating growth of Israeli settlements in defiance of the UN, the deferred pledges of substantial annexation of the West Bank, and the evident resolve by Israel to uphold its claim to govern Jerusalem as a unified whole, capital for Israel alone, makes any resurrection of two-state diplomacy an even crueler bad joke than Oslo told to the world while Palestinian aspirations are drenched in blood and the Palestinian people faced with an indefinite prospect of suffering under an apartheid Israeli regime.

The fact that the Biden presidency wasted no time resurrecting the two-state corpse is the clearest possible demonstration of the moral and political bankruptcy of U.S. policy with respect to the Palestinian struggle to achieve basic rights after many decades of denial. Unlike the Trump years, Friedman can exult in the reality that he is no longer out of step with those who preside over policymaking in the White House when it comes to the Middle East. And now post-Trump I am quite sure Friedman would not urge the Biden/Blinken to take back any of the unlawful gifts bestowed on Israel during the four Trump/Kushner years, including the Syrian Golan Height, the UN-defying move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, the ‘legalization’ of the settlements along with de facto annexation of significant territory in occupied Palestine.