Tag Archives: Iran

Remembering Ramsey Clark

12 Apr

Remembering Ramsey Clark

Ramsey Clark was a great man, and it was my privilege to work with him closely on several occasions. His death is a time to mourn, but it is also a time to remember who he was and why his life mattered in profound ways to so many people. 

I first met Ramsey under somewhat unusual circumstances. It was not long after the ending of the infamous Chicago 8 trial of 1969 that prompted Ramsey’s withdrawal from government, and it was just prior to the Harrisburg Kissinger Kidnapping Trial of Philip Berrigan, Elizabeth McAlister, Eqbal Ahmed, and several other for a fanciful alleged plot to kidnap Henry Kissinger while he was Secretary of State, at attractive phantasy but never planned beyond the musings of anti-war imaginaries. There were concerns about the future wellbeing of these idealistic defendants. because Harrisburg was deemed a conservative site for such a trial and that attempted kidnapping might produce lengthy prison sentences. With these considerations in mind, these defendants believed that it would be inflammatory to have the defense team led by a theatrical celebrity lawyer like William Kunstler who was seen as likely taunting and probably antagonizing judge, jury, and community. It was feared by friends of the defendants that such tensions could lead to a harsher sentence, however outlandish the charges.

The three best known defendants were my close friends, and I was asked to go meet Ramsey in Washington and see if he might be willing to represent the Berrigan/McAlister defense, which was delicate, as Bill Kunstler was their longtime devoted lawyer, friend, and devoted comrade. Ramsey was still in his Washington office shortly after leaving the government as its Attorney General, accompanied by gossip that LBJ hoped that Ramsey would become the next Texan to become a U.S. President. I was somewhat nervous about such a mission and intimidated by the prospect of meeting on my own about an ultra-sensitive issue with this high profile former government official who had this recent change of heart with respect to the Vietnam War. 

My anxieties were misplaced. I arrived on time, and was immediately ushered into Ramsey’s office, directed to a comfortable seat while he finished a phone call. As soon as I sat down, Ramsey tossed me a box of triscuits that had been on his desk, and fortunately I caught it or else legal history might have turned out differently. But what was disclosed by this trope was Ramsey’s unpretentious, casual, folksy, humble, and unassuming manner, which was a bit disconcerting as it was combined with a laser sharp mind and a character that could stand his ground as firmly as the most prized Texas Longhorn steer. When Ramsey’s phone call ended we talked without formality, as if friendly cousins who had much in common and had not seen each other recently. Our conversation ended with Ramsey agreeing to visit Philip Berrigan in a Danbury, Connecticut jail where he was serving time for prior acts of civil disobedience. Ramsey went on to represent and befriend the famed Berrigan brothers, at first only Philip at Harrisburg, bonded with them and the others on the legal team, and staked his claim, never to be relinquished, as America’s once mainstream nationally prominent civil servant, who became in the years after his heralded departure from government a renegade to those who identified with the establishment and a legendary hero to those of us who thirsted for progressive change.

For me Ramsey was a great man because of two extraordinary qualities:

–he never allowed his formidable ambition and public reputation stand in the way of principled action,resigning with cause from the highest echelons of government, burning his bridges of return by identifying openly with the radical wing of the anti-Vietnam War Movement. It has long surprised me how rare such displays of conscience are in American public lifeI could think of only Daniel Ellsberg who came close, who although acting from a lower level of prominence, made his notorious break with the government by way of high drama featuring the release of a large dossier of classified official documents relating to Vietnam policy, known to us as the Pentagon Papers that he expected to land him in prison for a lengthy sentence. Ramsey never wavered, and as far as I can tell, never regretted this momentous change from looking down from the pinnacles of public authority to looking up from the trenches of struggle on behalf of thoae marginalized and vulnerable at home and abroad. Ramsey, in common again with Dan, never lost his faith that the American way, politically and constitutionally, was the best path for governance, but if and only if it lived up to the Jeffersonian vision of political democracy so early encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence, which critics insist was already relegated to museum viewings by the more property-minded conservative U.S. Constitution.  

–Ramsey second quality that so impressed me was his fearlessness in the face of danger. We went together with Philip Luce to Iran at the climax of the revolution in early 1979, and had some harrowing experiences that shook my composure while leaving him unphased. I recall with especial vividness, as if yesterday, being together for lunch in the Iranian religious city of Qom after having just had an intellectually stimulating meeting with a leading Islamic figure, Ayatollah Shariat Maderi, who we were told was the best theological mind in Iran. After enjoying a simple Persian lunch on the central square, we ventured outside for a walk, soon to be confronted by young Iranians of high school age who identified us as Americans. They shouted in English chilling slogans: “Death to the Shah, Death to Americans.” Before we realized what was happening, hundreds more were attracted by the spectacle, some carrying posters with the picture of Ayatollah Khomeini. Two youthful ardent mullahs took over the spontaneous gathering, leading the chanting that raised the mob temperature to a fever pitch, which I interpreted as the prelude to a lynching. Ramsey standing tall amid the bloodthirsty crowd was as calm as if cutting a birthday cake. 

As might be obvious as I survived to recall the incident, our guides from Tehran finally managed to convince the mullahs that we were not CIA operatives or off-duty American soldiers, but had come to Iran at this time at the personal invitation of Mehdi Bazargan so as to understand that a popular revolution was underway, which was  revolutionary determined to transform the country but hoped it could avoid a feared U.S. intervention of the kind that had displaced the democratically elected Mohamed Mossadeq in 1953. With the switch in crowd mood from hostile to hospitable, Ramsey was fully at ease, while it took me time to quell my anxieties of a few minutes earlier when I was sure that I was on the verge of experiencing a bloody ending of my life. As it happened, we had meetings back in Tehran, declining offers of dinner by our former tormentors, and left in peace with the blessings of those whose chants had called for our death a short while ago.

–Ramsey had a third quality, which for most of us would have been sufficient to make most of us feel fulfilled in life, but for him merely added luster to those virtuous qualities that I believe he would have most wanted to be remembered for—principle above all else and fearlessness. As I was earning bread and board as a salaried intellectual, Ramsey’s third special quality aalone aroused my envy, knowing that the first two were beyond my reach. Ramsey possessed a prodigious storehouse of quotations from Rousseau, Jefferson, Locke, Oliver Wendell Holmes, FDR, JFK, Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others that he inserted effortlessly into his many extemporaneous talks during our times together, conveying the impression that he had internalized the wisdom of the ages. In addition, he was able to recall and distinguish what we were told by the numerous political and religious figures whom we had met day after day, reciting sentences verbatim, without ever taking a single note. I felt my mental inferiority, struggling to take down as much as I could from this fascinating array of individuals who met with us during those ten historic days in Iran during which the Shah left his throne forever, allowing the revolutionary movement to celebrate its extraordinary victory. All the while our modest mission dealt with a daunting schedule from dawn until the moon was high in the sky, and Ramsey gladly missed sleep rather than cancel even one of our scheduled meetings.

During this exhausting trip, climaxing with a long meeting with Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris, just prior to his return to Iran after 17 years spent in exile, we all learned a great deal, grateful for this exposure to the live tissue of revolution. I am tempted to set down as part of this concluding conversation with this future leader of Iran in the form of recalling this mysterious personage who was to dominate the political stage in his country for the rest of his life, but I will refrain. I did try to recall and appraise in my political memoir, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim that published weeks ago, which devotes a long chapter to this Iranian visit, with Ramsey figuring larger than life in many of its aspects.

Having praised Ramsey, I want to acknowledge some minor reservations that caused some friction during this Iran experience, and an earlier one in the less fraught, yet still tense, circumstances of the Tunisian struggle for democracy in the face of dictatorial rule. We had been invited to the country to speak at a human rights conference in the capital city of Tunis, convened by the leading opposition figures. The public event was cancelled by government edict, and we tried our best to perform in private venues according to the wishes of our brave, unintimidated hosts. Ramsey was as in Iran a tower of strength, an eloquent voice for freedom, democracy, decency who avowed his solidarity with those in opposition who, unlike the revolutionaries in Iran, resembled American liberals, invoking John F. Kennedy as their model of governance.

My reservations may be linked in various ways to Ramsey’s virtues. I was at times embarrassed by his ‘lectures’ to eminent Iranian religious and political leaders in which he basically urged them to follow the path of American constitutionalism. Although he was all for their revolutionary struggle, he felt its outcome could be best realized by following the American lead. Our hosts were invariably polite, partly sensing the importance of winning the valuable support of such a high profile visitor who opposed in Iran what Washington was hoping for, but I also noticed that they were bored and despite their best efforts, inattentive, staring out the window, playing with a pen or pencil but refraining from taking notes. I believed then and still do, that these Iranians didn’t appreciate being instructed even by Ramsey about what was best for the future of their country, a place with a long history and deep distinctive cultural characteristics. In my view, even Ramsey didn’t understand that we lacked credibility to Instruct Iranians about how to construct their post-Shah future.

I was also bothered by Ramsey’s tendency to dominate these meetings, and our contacts with the media. I felt that I had some things worth saying as did our third companion, Phil Luce, a notable anti-war activist with a religious vocation, combining social shyness with political brashness. We both felt somewhat frustrated by this unintentional marginalization. I overcame my own deference to Ramsey to raise our concern somewhat timidly. He responded that he understood, but claimed that he was helpless, that the persons we encountered and the media were primarily interested in him because of his background. This was a large part of the story, but not the whole of it. Ramsey could have made space for us, but the more I observed him, the more I realized that he flourished in the limelight, and sought it. Putting all this in perspective, on reflection it is more impressive that someone so ambitious in a context that was within his comfort zone, could toss ambition aside when it encroached upon his principles of justice and truth. I learned so much more from Ramsey about being-in-the-world that perhaps I should have suppressed these petty reservations. These criticisms are do not dilute my admiration for the man and his life, although maybe these qualities might have limited the depth of our friendship to some degree.

One final thought. When I first knew Ramsey he was a different person in the presence of Georgia, his life partner, who brought him joy and loving companionship, as well as lightened his manner. Without Georgia, Ramsey was a different person, austere and totally serious even when off camera. I never had the feeling that Ramsey on his own was capable of self-indulgence—reading trashy novels or watching entertaining movies, following sports, playing games, and being silly. Maybe he exposed his less puritanical sides to others who were more intimate. The bottom line is that Ramsey Clark, in my book, was an American hero who coveted virtue more than power or profits, and more than most lived his truths to the fullest. 

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. 

From Counterterrorism to Geopolitics: Reviving the U.S. Deep State

25 Dec

[Prefatory Note: The challenge of transnational non-state violence, what the media dutifully criminalizes as ‘terrorism’ while whitewashing the abuses of state and state-sponsored violence as ‘counterterrorism’ or exercises of every state to act in self-defense. Language matters as those who wanted to sugarcoat ‘torture’ by such phrases as ‘enhanced interrogation.’ The pendulum of U.S. foreign policy is swinging back in the direction of geopolitical confrontation, given the prospects of the Biden presidency. Although it is the highest political priority to be done with Trump and Trumpism, the renewal of ‘bipartisan foreign policy’ under the guidance of the American version of the deep state is not good news. It could mean a new cold war tilted toward China, but with different alignments, possibly including Russia, filled with risk and justification for continuing overinvestment in a militarized approach to national security causing a continuing underinvestment in human security, exposing the root cause of American imperial decline. The post below addresses some of these issues, and was published in the Tehran Times (17 Dec 2020).]

From Counterterrorism to Geopolitics: Reviving the U.S. Deep State

  1. In 1972, a specialized Committee on Terrorism was set up at the United Nations, and member states made great efforts to provide appropriate definitions of international terrorism, but due to intense political differences, the actual definition of international terrorism and comprehensive conventions in practice was impossible. Security Council Resolution 1373 was the most serious attempt to define terrorism after 9/11, which evolved into UN Security Council Resolution 1535. Despite providing a definition of terrorism, countries approach it differently. What is the reason?

There exists a basic split between those political actors that seek to define ‘terrorism’ as anti-state violence by non-state actors and those actors that seek to define terrorism as violence directed at innocent civilians, regardless of the identity of the perpetrator. The latter approach to the definition reaches targeted or indiscriminate violence directed at civilians even if the state is the perpetrator. States that act beyond their borders to fulfill counterrevolutionary goals seek to stigmatize their adversaries as terrorists while exempting themselves from moral and legal accountability.

There exists a second basic split due to state practice following political rather than legal criteria when identifying terrorist actors. When the Taliban and Al Qaeda were opposing Soviet intervention in Afghanistan they were identified as Mujahideen, but when seen as turning against the West, they were put on the top of the terrorist list. Osama Bin Laden, once hailed as a Western ally deserving lavish CIA support became the most wanted terrorist after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Such subjectivity and fluidity makes it virtually impossible to develop a coherent and legal approach to ‘terrorist’ activity.

In essence, geopolitical actors have always sought to have international law regard the use of force by states acting on their own as falling outside the framework of terrorism while regarding transnational political violence by adversary or enemy non-state actors as terrorism even if the targeted person or organization is a government official or member of the armed forces, or if the non-state actor is resisting occupation by foreign armed forces. Before the 9/11 attacks Israel adopted influentially adopted this approach in its effort to portray Palestinian resistance as a criminal enterprise. After 9/11 the United States added its political weight to this statist approach to the conception of terrorism, which meant in effect that any adversary target that could be characterized as associated with a non-state actor that resorted to armed struggle was criminalized to the extent of being treated as unprotected by international humanitarian law. In practice, this subjectivity was vividly displayed in recent years by support given to anti-Castro Cuban exiles that engaged in political violence against the legitimate Cuban government, and yet were given aid, support, and encouragement while based in the United States.

The UN was mobilized after the 9/11 attacks by the United State to support this statist/geopolitical approach to political violence, which possessed these elements, and given formal expression in a series of Security Council Resolutions, including 1373, 1535: 

     –terrorists are individuals who engage in political violence on behalf of non-state actors;

               –states, their officials and citizens may be guilty of supporting such activities through money, weapons and safe haven, and therefore indictable under national law as aiding and abetting terrorism;

              –political violence by states, no matter what its character, is to be treated by reference to international law, including international humanitarian law, and not viewed as terrorism;

              –even if the non-state actor is exercising its right of resistance under international law against colonialism or apartheid, its political violence will be treated as ‘terrorism’ if such a designation furthers geopolitical ambitions.  

The alternative view of terrorism that I endorse emphasizes the nature of the political violence, rather than the identity of the perpetrator. As such, political violence can be identified as ‘state terrorism,’ which amounts to uses of force that are outside the framework of war and peace, and violate the sovereign rights of a foreign country or fundamental rights of citizens within the territory of the state. Such acts of terrorism may be clandestine or overt, and may be attributed to state actors when counterrevolutionary groups are authorized, funded, and encouraged directly or indirectly by the state. Non-state actors can also be guilty of terrorism if their tactics and practices deliberately target civilians or recklessly disregard risks of death or harm to civilians. 

  • How do you assess the role and position of Iran in the fight against terrorism in the region?

As far as I know, Iran has opposed non-state political violence of groups such as ISIS or Taliban that engage in terrorist activity by committing atrocities against civilians that amount to Crimes Against Humanity. Iran has also consistently condemned state terrorism of the sort practiced by Israel and the United States, and possibly other governments, within the region. In this regard, Iran has been active both in the struggle against non-state and state terrorism.

Iran has been accused of lending funding and material support to non-state actors that many governments in the West officially classify as ‘terrorist’ organizations, such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Part of the justification for U.S. sanctions arises from this allegation that Iran supports terrorism in the Middle East. These allegations are highly ‘political’ in character as both Hezbollah and Hamas engaged in violent resistance directed at unlawful occupation policies that denied basic national rights to the Lebanese and Palestinian people, including the fundamental right of self-determination, although some of their tactics and acts may have crossed the line of legality.

There are also contentions that Iran’s support for the Syrian government in dealing with its domestic adversaries involves complicity in behavior that violates the laws of war and international humanitarian law. This contention is a matter of regional geopolitics. As far as international law is concerned, the Assad government in Damascus is the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, and is treated as such at the UN. Iran is legally entitled to provide assistance to such a government faced with insurgent challengess from within its boundaries. If the allegations are true that Syria has bombed hospitals and other civilian sites, then the Syrian government could be charged with state terrorism. 

3- How do you assess the role and position of General Ghasem Soleimani in the fight against terrorism and ISIS in the region? 

Although a military officer, General Soleiman, was not in any combat role when assassinated, and was engaged in peacemaking diplomacy on a mission to Iraq. His assassination was a flagrant instance of state terrorism. With considerable irony, the truth is that General Soleiman had been playing a leading counterterrorist role throughout the region. He is thought to have been primarily responsible for the ending, or at least greatly weakening, the threat posed by ISIS to the security of many countries in the Middle East.

  • Given the conflict of interests of different countries, can we see the same action by countries against terrorism? What mechanism can equalize the performance of countries against the terrorism?

As suggested at the outset, without an agreed widely adopted and generally agreed upon definition of terrorism it is almost impossible to create effective international mechanisms to contain terrorism. As matters now stand, the identification of ‘terrorists’ and ‘terrorism’ is predominantly a matter of geopolitical alignment rather than the implementation of prohibitions directed at unacceptable forms of political violence within boundaries and across borders.

To imagine the emergence of effective international, or regional, mechanisms to combat terrorism at least four developments would have to occur:

             –the reliance on legal criteria to categorize political violence as terrorism;

            –the inclusion of ‘state terrorism’ in the official definition of terrorism;

            –the inclusion of political violence within sovereign territory as well as across boundaries;

            –an internationally or regionally agreed definition incorporating these three elements and formally accepted by all major sovereign states and by the United Nation. 

In the present international atmosphere, such an international consensus is impossible to achieve. The United States and Israel, and a series of other important states would never agree. There are two sets of obstacles: some states would not give up their discretion to attack civilian targets outside their borders and would not accept accountability procedure that impose limits on their discretion over the means used to deal with domestic transnational non-state adversaries.

Under these conditions of geopolitical subjectivity such that from some perspectives non-state actors are ‘freedom-fighters’ and from others they are ‘terrorists,’ no common grounds for  meaningful and trustworthy intergovernmental arrangements exists.

It remains important for individuals and legal experts to advocate a cooperative approach to the prevention and punishment of terrorists and terrorism by reference to an inclusive definition of terrorism that considers political violence by states and by governments within their national territory as covered. 

It is also in some sense to include non-state actors as stakeholders in any lawmaking process that has any prospect of achieving both widespread acceptance as a framework or implementation at behavioral levels. It would seem, in this regard, important to prohibit torture of terrorist suspects or denial of prisoner of war rights. One-sided legal regimes tend to be rationalizations for unlawful conduct, and thus operate as political instruments of conflict rather than legal means of regulation.

Unless surprises occur, almost a probability, the Biden foreign policy will likely follow the George H.W. Approach approach more than the Obama approach, which continued to unfold as part of the aftermath to the 9/11 attacks. This means becoming again captive to the deep state’s approach to world order: global militarism, Euro-centric points of reference, predatory capitalism, and quasi-confrontational toward China, Russia.

Qatar: Between the Scylla of Coercion and the Charybdis of Accommodation: aan inquiry into sub-regional geopolitics

11 Dec

[Prefatory Note: Responses to Interview Questions on Sub-Regional Geopolitics in the Persian/Arab Gulf countries, Qods News Agency, 10 Dec 2020. Qatar is caught between seeking the end of the coercive diplomacy led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE and not wanting to end its necessary cooperation with Iran, especially with respect to large maritime natural gas deposits. The efforts at accommodation can turn out to be either a lessening of a confrontational approach to Iran or its intensification. Coming months, perhaps weeks, will be clarifying.]

Qatar: Between the Scylla of Coercion and the Charybdis of Accommodation: aan inquiry into sub-regional geopolitics

Q1: What is the role of Saudi Arabia in the structure of countries like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or even Lebanon? 

There is little doubt that Saudi Arabia seeks to spread its influence throughout 

the Middle East, both to enhance the regime stability of the monarchy and to contain challenges of Iran arising in the countries mentioned in the question. Saudi Arabian security is also linked to sectarian identity, not only to give hegemonic legitimacy to its particular version of Islam but to express its view that Shi’ism is responsible for turmoil and strife throughout the region, and is the basis of Iranian influence beyond its borders. These issues cause political controversy and explain external intervention in the four countries mentioned. In each one Iran is perceived by the Saudi government as blocking national ambitions in Riyadh to be the regional leader, but also of the perceived threats to Saudi security and legitimacy. The Islamic Republic of Iran is seen by Saudi Arabia as being not only a challenge to Sunni dominance of Islamic allegiance and identity in the region but also as an abiding threat to domestic security due to the strategic presence in the society of discontented and radicalized Shi’ite minorities and by Shi’ite insistence, clearly articulated by Ayatollah Khomeini, that monarchy is not compatible with Islamic values.

Q2: Given the fact that Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE obey the US policies, what is your assessment of the current dispute among them? 

It is a mistake to assume that the U.S. controls all aspects of Gulf country behavior. I believe that Saudi Arabia and UAE were disturbed by what they regarded as Qatar’s independent line of political behavior that collided with their policy preferences. These governments wanted there to be unity of purpose and policy with Gulf Cooperation Policy under their reactionary leadership, and opposed Qatar’s normalized relations with Iran, their openness to giving asylum and diplomatic support to Muslim Brotherhood leaders and prominent Hamas leaders living in exile, as well as their relative openness to ‘modernity’ with regard to freedom of expression and independent media, particularly Aljazeera, which carried articles that were critical of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in relation to the Syrian strife and otherwise. From available information, the U.S. never was comfortable with this split among Gulf countries, except at the very outset when the Saudi anti-Qatar received the obviously ill-considered blessings of President Trump while he was in Riyadh. Shortly afterwards, the U.S. Government realizing its strategic interests, quickly shifted its position and began using it diplomatic leverage to encourage reconciliation. It is plausible to believe that U.S. influence might have discouraged more aggressive moves against Qatar. The large U.S. Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar undoubtedly was a factor leading Washington to promote accommodation and at the same time likely inhibiting the Saudi/UAE led coalition from making any serious effort to implement their reported intention to achieve regime-change in Doha. It is likely that the Biden presidency will persist in its efforts to restore harmony among the Gulf monarchies, which is also what Israel seeks.

Q3: What reasons caused the shift of Arab world leadership from Egypt, Syria, and Iraq to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar? What were its effects?

Egypt, Syria, and Iraq exhibit national situations that each have their own special features generating distinct atmospheres of national emergency. At the same time, they share all-consuming preoccupations associated with domestic turmoil, strife, and conflict within their respective countries. These crisis situations dominates the energies of the political leadership of these governments. It is hardly surprising that the search for stability at home take precedence over the regional agenda. As well, these countries are not nearly as worried as are Saudi Arabia and the UAE by Iranian expanded influence in the region, or particularly threatened by anti-Sunni sectarianism. In contrast, as suggested above, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are relatively stable domestically, while giving greater attention to developments within the regional context of the Middle East. Qatar seems differently motivated, and can be best understood as asserting its independence as a sovereign state, thereby overcoming being in the shadows cast by its larger neighbor. Qatar uses its fossil fuel wealth and active political imagination to overcome its subordinated and mini-state reality, which it did so successfully as to provoke Saudi and Emirate elites, apparently particularly annoyed that Qatar was chosen to host the 2022 World Cup.


Q4: What are the reasons for the current regional security and political crises in the Middle East?

There are four principal reasons for these serious, prolonged crises: first, the various regional reverberations of the Iranian Revolution that has generated since 1979 a counterrevolutionary series of responses led, and even financed by Saudi Arabia and regional allies, and strongly endorsed by Israel and the United States. Each of these political actors has their specific motivations and priorities, as well as convergent policy objectives; secondly, the regionally destabilizing impacts of the Arab Uprisings of 2011, and the various efforts to reverse, or at least neutralize, those challenges directed at the established economic and political order. As well, the severe unresolved civil strife in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Libya have offered occasions for competitive interventions that have led to several proxy wars; thirdly, the U.S./UK attack on and regime-changing occupation of Iraq in 2003 had the effect of intensifying sectarian tensions and contributing to political extremism, dramatized by the rise of ISIS, and other manifestations of transnational terrorism; fourthly, the outside reactions to these developments in Iraq increased the scale of regional and international interventions in Syria and Yemen, produced oppression in Egypt, and led to frequent unlawful military actions by Israel in Syria. Such turmoil was aggravated by various U.S. undertakings designed to destabilize Iran, including by covert actions and sanctions maintained during the COVID pandemic despite international appeals to suspend sanctions and mitigate acute civilian suffering and adverse humanitarian consequences. The United States and Israel have given a high priority to curbing Iranian regional influences in relation to Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and more recently, Lebanon, as well as in Gaza.  

Q5: What is your opinion about the role of the Persian Gulf Arab countries in the formation of terrorist groups?

I am not an expert on this topic, nor is it easy to assess, given the role of secret and disguised behavior of Persian Gulf Arab countries. For many years, Saudi Arabia invested many billions in support of madrassas in Asian Sunni countries that encouraged Salafi versions of political extremism that

inspired terrorist organizations and political agendas, and also led to an increased reliance on state terrorist tactics and weaponry in carrying on counterterrorist warfare regionally. It is my impression that the lower profile military engagement by the U.S. during the Trump presidency led the Gulf Arab governments to be more regionally cautious, seemingly worried about escalation that might lead to war if Iran was unduly provoked, with the assumption that a full-fledged regional war would produce catastrophic results for all sides. Illustrative of a more cautious Gulf style of confrontation was the muted response to the drone attack attributed to Yemen, but with Iranian weaponry and alleged political support,t on the state-owned Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities located at Abqaiq in eastern Saudi Arabia. Whether Biden will revive American participation in the 2015 Nuclear Program Agreement in Iran, ending sanctions, will affect how Persian Gulf Arab governments deal with anti-Iranian terrorist organizations. As always, expectations about such behavior in the region should be tentative as many uncertainties loom on the road ahead.  

Should Iran Be Concerned About the U.S. Elections?

30 Sep

[Prefatory Note: The following interview was published by Mehr New Agency on 27 Sept 2020 in Tehran. It addresses questions that arise for foreign societies when seeking to comprehend the spectacle of the 2020 national elections in the United States. The outcome of the Trump/Biden struggle for presidential leadership is, of course, of particular concern to Iran.]

Should Iran Be Concerned About the U.S. Elections?

 

Q1: Can the US election be considered a fully democratic election?

 

No, the American elections as currently administered on  national level are not fully democratic for three principal reasons: (1) most obviously, due to various forms of voter suppression and distortion encroaching especially on the rights of persons of color and the impoverished to cast their votes either as a result of difficult registration rules or by making polling sites feel hostile or requiring especially long waits in neighborhoods where minorities and the poor live; (2) by presidential opposition to voting by mail and by alleging fraud and rigging without any evidence imperiling his willing to transfer political power if he loses, undermining confidence in the integrity of elections and causing the public great anxiety; (3) by not acknowledging and challenging ‘systemic racism’ inherent in American society that produces discrimination against African-Americans, Muslims, and other victimized minorities.

 

Q2: How do money, power and media affect the presidential election?

 

The electoral process in the United States is dominated by money, power, and mainstream media boundaries on ‘responsible’ discourse. This domination is expressed in different ways. The influence of large donors is felt in shaping party platforms and the positions of candidates, perhaps most obviously in securing pledges from candidates of unconditional support for Israel, and by refraining from any fundamental criticism of the military budget or the workings of contemporary neoliberal capitalism. Both political parties are subject to the priorities, interests, and beliefs of political and economic elites that often ignore the wishes of the citizenry as expressed through public opinion polls. Mainstream media, and its editorial pages and TV anchors, generally reflect and respect this bipartisan consensus that has set boundaries on political discourse that are rarely violated, and create a media bias supportive of things as they are, especially with respect to fundamental issues.

 

These tendencies are most pronounced and evident in relation to foreign policy where progressive critics are rarely access so as to participate in public debates. Media and Congressional views are shaped by a consensus that is managed by ‘deep state’ forces inhabiting the U.S. bureaucracies in the intelligence, defense, and diplomatic sectors, and reflect deference to money, power, and media. The working of this anti-democratic, choiceless political process is evident in recent treatments of Iran and China, and to a lesser extent, Venezuela and Turkey. There is no consideration of policy alternatives that would lead to greater peace, justice, and respect for different governing styles and development approaches. This foreclosure of alternative ways of relating to the world are recently most evident in the U.S. approach to Iran and China. Relations with Iran are unnecessarily provocative, and might moderate somewhat if Biden defeats Trump, but not fundamentally. With China, a slide toward geopolitical confrontation is favored by both political parties as reflected in the presidential campaigns, and might be more aggressively pursued if Biden wins, assuming that Trump does not effectively obstruct the transfer of political power. A second cold war would be costly for humanity and disastrous for the United States, at a time when national policies, resources, and diplomatic efforts should be seeking global cooperation, global solutions to global problems, and attend to serious deficiencies in domestic infrastructure. The COVID crisis highlighted the shortcomings of national antagonisms in the face of a global health challenge that could have been greatly mitigated by a more cooperative international approach based on the recognition that ‘we are all in this together.’

 

Q3: Why do minor political parties have such little success competing in US elections?

 

Given the 50 separate federalist units that constitute the United States, there was an understandable concern during its entire history about political fragmentation, which led to making it burdensome procedurally and economically to organize political parties. The two-party framework is further reinforced by the media tendency to exclude third party voices and positions such as the Green Party from national debates. Also, even legislative participation is almost impossible as the minority party candidate must win by a majority in any electoral district unlike other countries where a 5% or 10% of the vote qualifies the party for representation, and greater diversity in the annals of government, but in some circumstances great confusion. Perhaps, most important of all, is the widely felt sense that a vote for a third party candidate is a wasted vote as the only meaningful candidacy is that of one of the two dominant parties.

 

In recent decades, the bipartisan consensus is served well by keeping minor parties at the outer margins of policy debate. It makes the consensus appear to be the only reasonable political option. This is misleading and discourages citizen participation by those who dissent. In reality, there is more questioning of American priorities with respect both to global militarism and predatory capitalism than is apparent, but such questioning only gets broader attention at some progressive online publications and websites. It will take a movement rather than electoral outcomes to challenge these structural characteristics of the American political system, which must culminate in the revamping of both political parties and the shattering of the bipartisan consensus, whose origins are rooted in the World II struggle against fascism and the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union. The consensus lingers in the 21st century after the Soviet collapse, taking the form of launching ‘the war on terror,’ responding to ‘the clash of civilizations,’ and now supporting the prospect of a new cold war or a regime-changing approach to Iran.

 

Q4: Why is turnout so low in US elections?

 

Electoral turnout has been low in recent years because the perceptions of living in a ‘choiceless’ democracy give many U.S. citizens the impression that it does not matter who wins as either way the problems of their lives will not be solved. Perhaps, more than choiceless, a better existential explanation of this disvaluing of the right to vote is the sense of what I would call irrelevant democracy. This means that political outcomes of elections are felt to be irrelevant to conditions of poverty or discrimination, or economic unfairness, an interpretation that gains credibility that it is ‘the losers’ in American society that make up the bulk of those who fail to vote, sometimes out of principled rejection of both candidates being put forward. It reflects deep alienation in middle class and underclass America, which has been somewhat lessened at this time due to a fear that Trump’s reelection could produce a fascist America. This fear will undoubtedly increase voter turnout in November, but not necessarily in a post-Trump future.

 

Although it is the disadvantaged who disproportionately refrain from voting (and partly also for reasons connected with voter suppression discussed in response to Q1), there are sophisticated citizens who refuse to vote on principle or vote under the banner of ‘the lesser of evils.’ Progressive anti-Trumpists are faced with this dilemma in the forthcoming elections. Biden’s record, especially on international issues and the Middle East, is of a consistently war-mongering character that includes strong support for the disastrous 2003 war and subsequent occupation of Iraq and mindless indifference to Israel’s criminal disregard of Palestinian rights. Besides, as suggested, Biden seems as readier for a new cold war than Trump. His version of the foreign policy bipartisan consensus is more coherent and deferential to the considered views of the political elite and militarized American bureaucracy while Trump is an impulsive leader that thinks he can by himself engineer a revival of American preeminence by bullying, bluster, and bluff.

 

My own reluctant support of Biden is rooted in my greater apprehensions about Trump, which also explains why I equally reluctantly supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 when she opposed Trump. I regard his demagogic style, racist affinities, ultra-nationalism, ecological denialism as a vehicle for a fascist future for the United States, which would mean the total abandonment of democratic procedures of governance, accompanied by repressive policies and practicess. Such an abandonment would almost certainly produce harsh exclusionary hostility to immigration except from majority white countries, punishment of dissent and protest activity, and an economic and political order even more slanted in favor of the most wealthy. My reluctance about the electoral choice posed by Biden or Trump is also colored by uncertainty in the form of an obscure future. I fear a belligerent future in which Biden’s approach leads to interventions and even war, whereas I grant the possibility that a reelected Trump could opt for isolationism, which resulted in more moderation in the Middle East and elsewhere.

 

Q5: What role does AIPAC play in US elections?

 

AIPAC is a strong lobbying group that is perceived by the political parties to exert great influence on large Jewish donors and Jewish voters generally. The leadership of both parties compete for AIPAC approval, although as an organization it refrains from political endorsements at national levels. It does have a record of opposing Congressional candidates deemed critical of Israel, making inflammatory accusations that candidates critical of Israel are by that fact alone anti-Semitic. Such a campaign has been launched with at least implicit AIPAC support to defeat the candidacy of Ilhan Omer who is running for reelection in urban Minneapolis.

 

Part of the effectiveness of AIPAC is due to money and tight organizational discipline, and part of its influence is due to the absence of countervailing Jewish organizations that speak for liberal Zionism and progressive Jews. J-Street has attempted to provide a voice for liberal Zionism in Washington, and has limited success at legislative levels, but not in relation to party platforms or the selection of national candidates. Jewish Voice for Peace is an admirably balanced NGO, but its influence is mainly felt in civil society, where it has created growing support for a just outcome of this struggle that has gone on for a century, which includes supported the realization of the Palestinian right of self-determination whether in the form of a viable separate sovereign state or a single state whose foundational principle is ethnic equality.

 

Throughout its existence AIPAC has been and remains subservient to the priorities of Israeli leadership and consistently supportive of maximal Zionist goals, and hence an adherent of antagonistic attitudes on international law, the UN, and international morality. In my judgment, AIPAC has harmed the role of the U.S. in the Middle East and at the UN by pushing American foreign policy in belligerent and regime-changing directions, focusing on heightening the confrontation with Iran, and secondarily, with Turkey, which has intensified regional tensions and dangers of war. The recent sanctions debate in the UN Security Council manifested both U.S. belligerence and its defiance of the views of even its normally close European allies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Q: Why do minor political parties have such little success competing in US elections?

 

Q: Why is turnout so low in US elections?

 

Q: What role does AIPAC play in US elections?

 

Will Confronting Iran Lead to War or Peace?

1 Oct

[Prefatory Note: The post below is a slightly modified version of an interview published in The Nation on September 25th, following the September 14th attack on Saudi oil facilities. It follows a pattern with respect to Iran of accusations, denials, and public uncertainties. This combination of elements, given the leadership in Washington and Tehran, one blustering, the other inflexible, can easily produce an unintended stumble into war. A second shorter interview is appended, conducted prior to the attacks by an Iranian journalist, M.J. Hassani of Tasnim News Agency. It illustrates the seeming rigidity of Iran’s Supreme Guide, considered as having the final word on government policy, exceeding that of the elected leadership.]

 

Daniel Falcone Introduction to the Interview: After accusations of Iranian drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities, Iranian officials and authorities indicated that “full-fledged war” with the United States could be imminent, prompting Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state oil company, to suspend oil production by nearly 6 million barrels per day. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to the purported aggression as an “unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.” The allegations caused other countries to ostracize Iran at the United Nations General Assembly and significantly complicated the prospects of a multilateral nuclear deal.

 

Falcone: Can you provide some context for this latest series of headlines regarding the “Iranian threat.” Is this just “old wine new bottles?”

 

Falk: The magnitude of this attack on Saudi oil facilities makes the situation more dangerous even if it is considered as nothing more than a quantitative escalation of Iran’s response to US sanctions and other provocations, an Iranian version of Trump’s proclaimed policy of applying ‘maximum pressure’ to bring Iran to its knees. Yet it could be a qualitative escalation if the attack is treated as the biggest test of the US commitment to dominance in the region since 1956 when the US sided with the UN in calling for France, the UK, and Israel to withdraw from the Sinai after the Suez Operation. As Falcone suggests, the American Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, made war-mongering remarks, including calling the attacks ‘an act of war.’ It is hard to deny that such an attack is an act of war, but against whom, by whom, has not been firmly established.

And yet, the hawks in the room clamor for blood, and do not seem to mind if the result is an all out regional war. Stephen A. Cook, the respected Council on Foreign Relations Middle East expert, endorsed this qualitative line of interpretation when he ended his analysis of the attack with some inflammatory words: “If Trump does not respond militarily, the United States should just pack up and go home.” [see Cook, “This is the Moment that Decides the Future of the Middle East,” Flash Points, Sept. 18, 2019]

 

At the same time, Trump seems to be inclined, at least for the present, to regard the attacks on the Abqaiq oil processing facility and the Khurais oil field as a big serving of the old wine. Trump in typical fashion has displayed both bluster and restraint. At least verbally Trump has spoken in a muscular vein, insisting that if Iranian responsibility for the attack can be demonstrated, then he will retaliate in some proportionate manner. Even under these circumstances, possibly with his eye on November 2020, Trump seems determined to avoid acts that would start an unwanted war. Although ambiguously, Trump still somewhat surprisingly appears to be keeping the diplomatic door ajar. He has been quoted as saying, probably much to Israel’s chagrin, “I know they [the Iranians] want to make a deal..at some point it will work out.” It will not work out if Trump uses this transactional language when approaching the religious leadership of Iran, even if directed at President Rouhani who leads the moderate forces in Tehran. To talk of ‘a deal’ is to demean the process, and helps explain the deep distrust of any American move toward negotiation that was unreservedly expressed recently by Iran’s supreme guide, Ayatollah Khamenei. U.S. leaders and diplomats should by now have learned that the language of the bazaar does not work if the objective is to find an agreement that serves the interests of both sides.

 

 

Falcone: With Iran, Trump seems to be caught in a pickle. On the one hand, he needs to undo the Obama legacy in the region with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). On the other hand, he runs the risk of looking like a neoconservative. What’s going on in your estimation?

 

Falk: I think you are correct in sensing the conflicting pressures on Trump. He cannot go back on his repudiation of the JCPOA agreed upon in 2015 and its Obama approach without seeming to be giving in to Iran’s pressure. At the same time, he evidently does not want to follow the Bolton/neocon/Pompeo path that leads to open military action, and most likely followed by a devastating war. In this sense, Trump’s ideal outcome would be some sort of diplomatic accommodation that he could ‘sell’ as a demonstration that ‘maximum pressure’ has yielded results. Whether he could spin such an outcome as a victory outside of his base seems doubtful as there would be many critics who would insist that any such result, even if it disguised the revival of JCPOA with another round of negotiations and a new name, would be viewed as at best a repetition of what had been achieved by the P5 + 1 Obama diplomacy of 2015. In fact, it now seems that to get any agreement with Iran there would have to be a much more solid commitment by the US and its allies that sanctions could not be again re-imposed on Iran in the future without a collective decision by the parties to the agreement. Such a condtion might possibly also be reinforced requiring a confirming decision on sanctions by the UN Security Council. If I were negotiating on Iran’s behalf, I would certainly insist on ironclad assurances that sanctions could not be renewed by a unilateral decree issued in Washington. Perhaps, Iran could be persuaded to accept some joint arrangements on regional peacekeeping and nonintervention that could be sold in Washington, and maybe even in Jerusalem and Riyadh as curtailing Tehran’s projection of regional power.

 

Falcone: John Bolton was recently fired. Can you talk about his role in the administration to get us to this point. I’m wondering if his dismissal is mere optics and the Bolton-Pompeo foreign policy is firmly in Trump’s hand.


Falk: We should realize by now that Trump’s highly quixotic style is resistant to all attempts at rational analysis. We do not really know whether Trump was reacting to Bolton’s belligerence with respect to foreign policy or to his aggressive, pushy personality that has long offended many prominent persons without achieving promised foreign policy victories. For instance, his advocacy of maximum pressure did not produce the desired regime change in Iran, or even a pullback on its regional involvements as in Gaza, Lebanon, and Yemen. All it did was to raise regional tensions to dangerous heights.

 

It does not appear that there is any sign of an ideological shift in the White House, although there does seem to be a more complex approach preferred by Trump, which fuses bluster and threats with this resolve to avoid outright combat, war, and any course of action that might lead to American casualties. This zigzag pattern of diplomatic maneuvering has so far seemed capable of absorbing Trump’s drastic mood swings and off the chart impulsiveness. The fact that it drives crazy the rational think tank gurus who dominate the Beltway can be regarded as a plus for Trump. Perhaps, the best explanation of Bolton’s dismissal was his fiery independence, which must have been fundamentally at odds with Trump’s insistence on low-profile deference from his top advisors and the shaping and reshaping of foreign policy on the basis of a constant search for transactional gains (even at the cost of diplomatic setbacks), which treats global policymaking as if it is just a replica of how to succeed in the urban real estate market without trying too hard.

 

It is lamentable that Bolton’s successor as National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, seems to be a milder version of the same hawkish pedigree, although seemingly more bureaucratic, less ascerbic, in style. A few years ago, O’Brien published a book of essays [While America Slept: Restoring American Leadership to a World in Crisis] that was highly critical of the supposed passivity of Obama’s foreign policy. In recent years, as State Department coordinator of hostage releases O’Brien has proven his value by being a Trump enthusiast, which in the present climate is the best credential a person can have who seeks a promotion to a high-status position in the federal government.

Falcone: How does oil, sanctions, and our relations with the Saudis contribute to the rising tensions in the region and the dangerous possibility of escalations?

 

Falk: There is no doubt that the sanctions imposed on Iran, coupled with the repudiation of the JCPOA, has escalated the conflict, and resulted partly from Washington seeking to please the Saudis and Israelis by adopting a more confrontational approach to Iran. As well, in the background is the dream scenario of toppling the regime, or at least forcing it to plead for mercy. There is no doubt that sanctions have caused great harm as measured by social and economic conditions in Iran, a collective and indiscriminate punishment mainly inflicted on the Iranian civilian population. Such coercion violates the UN Charter and international law. This punitive behavior against Iran resembles what was done to the Iraqi population in the twelve years after the First Gulf War. The frustrations with this reliance on sanctions eventuated in a devastating attack and occupation of Iraq initiated by George W. Bush in 2003. The Iraq War ended in a costly strategic failure given its supposed goals, including a boost to extremism concretely exhibited by the rise of ISIS almost in direct response to the heavy-handed American occupation policies in Iraq.

 

The prolonged strife in Yemen is part of this mindless militarism. It has included strong American backing for a brutal Saudi intervention from the aiir that has caused widespread suffering on the part of a largely helpless society, posing serious threats of massive famine and disease epidemics

Falcone: I’ve noticed whenever Trump wants to avoid delivering a foreign policy message and tone that sounds like Bush or Clinton he trots Pence out there to do the dirty work. Is this, in your view, to promote war with Iran yet try to create an intentional distance from neoliberals and neoconservatives?

 

Falk: As always, it is hard to interpret the logic behind Trump’s moves, or even to believe that a discoverable logic exists. He seems to act without calculating gains and losses unless money is involved, but is focused on trying to achieve immediate results that bring him notoriety if not glory. If there is a policy failure, then Trump does his best to shift the blame to others. Perhaps, because confronting Iran is a risky kind of diplomatic venture, it is best to put Pence out in front as often as possible, and thus seek to distance himself from responsibility if and when policy breakdowns occur. Trump consistently personalizes foreign policy and his leadership role demands above all that media attention is focused on himself. Trump stretches the reality of almost any situation to implausible extremes making it necessary to exonerate himself from distasteful and dysfunctional behavior by inverting and inventing facts, lying when it seems helpful, and disseminating fake news without blushing.

Falcone: Of course Israel will always be pertinent in figuring out the US method to the madness concerning Iran. How can following the US-Israeli alliance help us to get a sense of potential war with Iran. Or has this war already been underway?

 

Falk: The connections with Israel are vital to an understanding of the US role in the Middle East, and especially in the context of Washington’s ‘special relationships’ with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Israeli relationship is more deeply rooted in American politics than is the Saudi connection, which seems interest-based, relating not only to oil but also to its status as the world’s primary arms purchaser. With respect to both countries, it is arguable that these special relationships are contrary to American national interests in the Middle East, and also lead to behavior contrary to America’s professed values. With regard to the Saudis, their huge investment in the dissemination worldwide of a fundamentalist Wahabist doctrine of Islam would seem radically at odds with the US counterterrorist strategy, especially since 9/11. If Iran’s indirect involvement in the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities is established, then it would allow us to make a challenging comparison with the Saudi direct and indirect involvement in the 9/11 attacks, which according to the official version of the events implicated 15 Saudis of the 19 hijackers.

 

Most damaging is the FBI evidence of Saudi support for the attacks that killed almost 3,000 Americans that has been withheld all these years until families of victims finally obtained their release. The efforts of the presidency of George W. Bush with inappropriate help from the FBI director at the time who happened to be Robert Mueller, to shield Saudi embassy officials and others close to the royal family from any accountability, or even scrutiny. Only the pressure of survivors and survivor families seems finally to be prying some of this information loose in the course of a law suit charging Saudi complicity in 9/11. Shockingly, yet to be expected, hardly a word appears in the mainstream media, and even now Trump’s Attorney General, William Barr, is invoking the state secrets act to justify on national security grounds withholding evidence that evidently would further incriminate Saudi Arabia. These developments coming to light 17 years after 9/11 should give pause to those who still question the primacy of geopolitics and the unacceptable behavor of the deep state when it comes to the conduct of American foreign policy or even the protection of national interests and the wellbeing of American citizens. It also raises haunting questions about the effects of these two special relationships, and reminds us of the ugly connivance and coverup of the Israeli assault on the USS Liberty back in 1967 that killed 44 American naval personnel. For those who seek the full exposure of this incident, I urge a reading of Joan Mellen’s Blood in the Water, written with the cooperation of leading officers of the Liberty who survived the attack. In effect, bad as Trump is on these issues, he cannot be blamed for everything. These pernicious special relationships long preceded his presidency, and were bipartisan.

 

As for Israel, the relationship has definitely turned Arab public opinion and popular sentiments strongly against the US, and made the US continued dominance in the region depend on propping up anti-democratic autocratic leaders. The whole policy of confronting Iran has for many years been driven by the Netanyahu leadership, gravely weakening America’s role as a responsible global leader, and risking a war that would be a humanitarian and geopolitical disaster.

 

How far Israel, as a state, and Netanyahu, personally, are to blame for the escalated confrontation with Iran is difficult to assess, but it would seem to be substantial. What stands out for me is how supposed American ‘patriots’ can continue to swallow the toxic kool aid of these two special relationships. It may be time to reconsider what constitutes patriotism and what constitutes treason. In a world where Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning,  and Julian Assange are viewed as criminals but John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and Donald Trump are viewed as national patriots there is something terribly wrong with our political language.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tasnim News Agency Interview Questions, M.J. Hassani, 17 Sept 2019

Hassani: On Tuesday, Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei deplored the US’ calls for talks with Iran as a trick and said that Tehran will not negotiate bilaterally or multilaterally with Washington at any level. What do you think about Ayatollah Khamenei’s remarks?

Falk: With all due respect, I think that Ayatollah Khamenei’s remarks are phrased in too unconditional language. I believe that it is not desirable to shut the door to what I call ‘restorative diplomacy,’ and thereby avoid any further devastation caused by the current reliance on ‘coercive diplomacy’ by the adversaries of Iran and by Iran’s ‘active resistance.’ Trump is unpredictable and impulsive, and should not be challenged so directly as he might act irrationally in ways that could be mutually catastrophic. At the same time, the Iranian religious leader is correct to express the view that Iran will not engage in normalization talks so long as the United States and Israel seek to impose unacceptable restraints on Iran as a sovereign nation, while they engage in unrestrained and unaccountable military action throughout the entire Middle East.

 

Hassani: The reason behind this approach is that Iran sees the US calls for negotiation as a trick aimed at imposing its demands on the Islamic Republic and pretending that the “maximum pressure” policy has worked. This is while Iran has not given in to the US pressures so far. Is the reason justified? How do you assess Iran’s policy of “active resistance” against the US?

I agree with the view that Iran should not be lured into a negotiation that gives the US a public relations victory by claiming the success of its ‘maximum pressure’ approach, but this should be done by Tehran in ways that also expresses Iran’s search for an improved regional and global political atmosphere that is geared toward peace and co-existence rather than war and hostility. I believe Iran has effectively made its point that it will not back down in the face of harsh sanctions and other hostile acts that are contrary to international law. Now it can seize the initiative by proposing a constructive approach that shows that it seeks normalization on the basis of sovereign equality, and is not seeking confrontation for the sake of confrontation.

 

Hassani: Iran has described the US return to the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the removal of sanctions against the Islamic Republic as the only way that Washington can hold talks with Iran. How do you see the prospect of open diplomacy between Iran and the US as well as the other parties to the JCPOA?

Falk: Trump has wrongly, and for regressive political reasons, condemned the JCPOA, but would have incredible political difficulty and embarrassment if he now were to affirm it. The motivation for condemning JCPOA had to do with his efforts to repudiate Obama’s diplomacy and to show total solidarity with Israel, and is not really about the 2015 agreement, except incidentally. I think Iran should propose to reconvene the countries that negotiated in 2015, and produce a new agreement based on intervening developments, but making it clear that this would not be an acceptance of any preconditions put forward by Washington, and would not relate to non-nuclear issues.

 

Hassani: Can we regard the Islamic Republic’s strategy of “active resistance” against the US pressures as successful given Ayatollah Khamenei’s assertions?

Falk: I think ‘active resistance,’ depending somewhat on how it is defined has been successful so far, but in some ways a dangerous and high risk policy if adhered to much longer. Iran, having made its point effectively, should move to higher ground by proposing constructive deescalating steps such as reconvening the P5 +1 group to come up with a new framework agreement covering Iran’s nuclear program and the ending of US sanctions. The way forward should not be a continuation of the present, but an effort to occupy this high ground of law, morality, and peaceful conflict resolution. It may also be appropriate at this time to propose an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, which likely would be rejected by Trump, but would put Iran in a favorable light internationally as creatively engaging in restorative diplomacy. Taking a longer view, Iran should consider reviving discussion of a nuclear free zone for the entire Middle East, including Israel, a country that acquired nuclear weapons by stealth and covert assistance from those states now most objecting to Iran’s nuclear program.

 

 

 

 

 

Moving Toward the Brink of War: Provoking Iran for What? For Whom?

30 Jun

Toward the Brink of War: Provoking Iran for What? For Whom?

 

 [Prefatory Note: The following interview with the Iranian journalist Javad Hieran-Nia was published in Iran together with Middle Scholar’s Statement on Trump’s Iran Policy. The links below on the Iranian publication in Mehr News and Tehran Times.

 

 

https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/437517/Impossible-to-predict-where-Trump-will-go-with-Iran-policy-Falk

https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/437548/Attack-on-Iran-would-be-an-unmitigated-disaster-for-all

https://en.mehrnews.com/news/146956/American-attack-on-Iran-would-be-an-unmitigated-disaster-for

 

What follows here is an English version of the interview, somewhat modified.]

 

Q 1: Do you think that the maximum pressure campaign on Iran will have the intended outcome sought by Trump?

We have learned that it is impossible to predict where Trump will go with Iran policy. Judging from relations with other leaders, he is likely to be more forthcoming if the foreign government and its leaders are receptive to his often enigmatic diplomatic initiatives, sometimes proposing out of the blue face to face meetings.

It is quite unlikely that this Trump diplomatic pattern will be followed in relation to Iran for several reasons. First of all, Trump has himself taken a number of unilateral provocative steps for which there was no justification, starting with the withdrawal from the Nuclear Program Agreement followed by the imposition of a harsh sanctions regime that unlawfully overreaches by seeking to coerce other countries to refrain from trading with Iran. Such punitive initiatives are flagrant instances of economic aggression in violation of international law and the UN Charter.

Secondly, Trump’s chief advisors seem determined to push the US Government over the brink by escalating tensions, threatening military action,  and demonizing Iran. Thirdly, U.S. military capabilities have been provocatively increased with the obvious bullying goal of posing a threat to and exerting pressure on Iran, or as anti-Iranian militants allege to deter Iranian moves against American regional interests. Fourthly, the anti-Iran policy has been pushed hard by Israel and Saudi Arabia, which exert excessive influence on American foreign policy in the Middle East.

At the same time Trump’s unpredictability could suggest that a more hopeful future. Trump has at time indicated his willingness to talk with Iranian leaders, backed down at the last minute a week ago at the dangerous verge of authorizing a military strike, and has seemed reluctant to initiate wars as distinct from his disposition to make threats and impose sanctions. We know that in 2016 Trump was highly critical of Democrats (and even Republicans) for regime-changing wars in the Middle East, especially Iraq and Libya, and may believe that a military confrontation with Iran would hurt his reelection prospects in 2020. The. American people seem opposed at this time to any kind of military undertaking that risks war with Iran.

Q2, It looks as though we are approaching closer to the American presidential election, Trump seems to be increasingly willing to talk with Iranian authorities. Some believe that this readiness to talk is more for electoral advertising than as an expression of a new foreign policy approach to Iran. What is your opinion?

As my prior response suggests, it is always difficult to grasp Trump’s political motivations accurately, and he is quite capable of thinking that peace talks with Iran will help his reelection plans one day and think the opposite on the very next day. His positions are adopted and abandoned in a manner that reflects his calculations of advantage at a particular moment in time.

Trump knows very little about the substantive issues relating to Iran. All he seems to know and rely upon is that his friends in Tel Aviv and Riyadh dislike Iran and that his nemesis, Obama, reached a normalizing relationship with Iran in 2015 that he has repudiated in one of his worst displays of irresponsible. statesmanship.

It is quite likely that if Trump thinks that if he could achieve a new agreement on Iran’s nuclear program then he could promote the outcome as hi personal diplomatic victory, and claim as a great achievement of his hardline approach that shows skeptics he knew what he was doing all along. Trump probably believes that such an outcome would bring him victory and a second term in the White House, and he could be right about this.except that it is close to inconceivable that his desired outcome will happen. The Iranian government, while seeking normalization with the West, including the U.S., show no sign that it willing to give any further ground with respect to its position on key questions pertaining to its nuclear program.

Q3.  If the maximum pressure against Iran does not reach the result, then what?  Would you imagine a change in Trump’s national security team, including the dismissal of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo by way of forced resignations?

As with the. earlier questions, we cannot confidently predict how Trump will handle high officials in his own government whom he thinks disagree or obstruct his policies. It seems that most often such officials soon resign or are fired, but not always. Yet if he claims victory with respect to his Iran policies, even if it seems to most observers as ‘a defeat’ he would probably praise Bolton and Pompeo for their contributions rather than complain about their performance.

We cannot know at this point whether the hard line advocated by Bolton and Pompeo is seeking results by exerting maximum pressure via threat diplomacy or is a prelude to war if Iran does not give in to the demands or retaliates in some way. The tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman can be understood either as a possible effort by the intelligence agencies and Bolton/Pompeo to trap Trump into authorizing a ‘decisive response’ or maybe just an effort to mobilize public opinion in the US and Europe to become more supportive of the current Washington approach based on belligerence and provocation. We do know that much evidence and objective assessments point to false flag operations in these tanker attacks, and if so, it suggests that whoever is responsible clearly intended to raise tensions and set the stage for a further escalation of the conflict.

 

 

  1. Given that Trump’s trade war with China will have unfavorable effects on the US economy in the coming months and the economy it could have an effect on the 2020. Presidential elections. Trump. What do you anticipate to be the outcome of the US elections in 2020 if the trade war with China. continues?

As far as we now know, the Trump trade policies are producing a trade war with China that will not end soon, but whether its negative effects will alter the 2020 national elections is highly uncertain at this time. As long as the American stock market remains high and the unemployment levels remain low it is not likely to be a major factor as compared to health, immigration, security, and most of all, a test of Trump’s degree of popularity with the American voting public.

There is a broad American consensus that China had been acting unfairly in international trade, which justified some efforts to resurface the playing field in relation to trade and intellectual property rights, but among economists there seems wide agreement that raising tariffs on Chinese imports are not an effective tool for reaching this goal. Tariffs are seen as counterproductive to the extent that they drag down the world economy, remind Americans of the Great Depression, and end up hurting the United States. As your question suggests over time a trade war will produce a downturn in the American economy that then drags has negative effects on the world economy, but I doubt that it will have much of an. Impact on the forthcoming presidential elections, which seem dominated by sharp disagreements on the domestic policy agenda.

  1. A poll of voter preferences was recently arranged by Fox News, the chief media sponsor of Trump, that shows that Trump has less voter support than five Democrats, including Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. Given the fact that the poll was held by Fox News, how do you evaluate such results? I recognize that there have been some differences between Trump and Fox News recently, which may make these resulting less important than they seem.

Fox News continues to be mainly supportive of Trump, and this presidential popularity poll may have been released to energize Trump support groups to work harder, warning of. a strong challenge from a candidate of the Democratic Party.

These early polls are not reliable. I do not expect that either Sanders or Biden to end up as the choice of the Democratic Party to oppose Trump in 2020. I believe Biden will be seen as too weak a candidate that would self-destruct if facing Trump, while Sanders is seen as too divisive, old, and narrow in his focus. What is true is that Trump remains an historically unpopular president, and is definitely vulnerable to defeat if the Democratic Party puts forward a candidate that unifies its moderate and progressive factions while offering progressive programs on the main domestic issues and proposing a more constructive foreign policy.

Such a Democratic candidate would certainly announce an intention to restore the Obama nuclear agreement with Iran and reinstitute the staged removal of sanctions in accord with the agreement, which would also achieve a restored consensus with Europe, Russia, China, and Germany. If such an eventuality occurs, Iran would be expected to renew its commitment as to an agreed level and quantity of enriched uranium and an acceptance of limits on the annual production of heavy water. Such a positive expectation would be reason enough for me to vote in favor of whomever the Democratic Party ends of nominating. I hope it will be Elizabeth Warren, but several others would be acceptable to me.

 

AN AMERICAN ATTACK ON IRAN WOULD BE AN UNMITIGATED DISASTER FOR THE US, IRAN AND THE WORLD: Iran War Statement

25 Jun

[Prefatory Note: The following statement on US warmongering in relation to Iran was prepared by Mark LeVine, Professor of History, University of California, Irvine and myself. Some of the early signatories are among the leading scholars in the field of Middle East Studies. Their names are listed below.

It seeks to make two major arguments: first, that the unlawful threats and coercive moves made by the United States point toward a political disaster that would include the commission of the most serious of international crimes, that of aggression via threats and uses of force that do not constitute self-defense under international law; secondly, that it is essential to shift the relationship with Iran from one based on coercive to an approach resting on restorative diplomacy involving a deliberate reversal of American Foreign Policy with the overriding objective of normalization of relations between our two countries.

If you wish to add your name to the signatories of the statement, use the link below. As there  is no space for affiliation, I suggest putting your first and last name in the first blank space, and your affiliation in the space reserved for last name.]

https://secure.avaaz.org/en/community_petitions/President_Trump_An_American_Attack_on_Iran_Would_be_an_Unmitigated_Disaster_for_the_US_Iran_and_the_World/details/

 

 

 

AN AMERICAN ATTACK ON IRAN WOULD BE

AN UNMITIGATED DISASTER FOR THE US, IRAN AND THE WORLD

 

Statement by leading Middle East/Islamic studies scholars, June 22, 2019

We, the undersigned scholars of the Middle East and North Africa and broader Muslim world, call on President Trump immediately to pull back from the brink of a war with the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is clear to us that the human, diplomatic, legal, political, and economic costs to both countries, the Persian Gulf and larger Middle East, the global economy and the global system of international humanitarian law of a US attack would be even more devastating than was the US invasion of Iraq sixteen years ago. We call upon the political leadership of the country, with a sense of urgency, not only to refrain from any further threats and uses of force against Iran, but also to put forward a new American diplomacy that takes steps to achieve a sustainable peace between our two countries and within the larger region.

 

We bring to the public’s attention the following points:

 

– The US-led Iraqi invasion, whose financial toll has exceeded $2 trillion in the US and at least that much in its adverse economic impact on the affected countries, led to the deaths of over 600,000 Iraqis, largely destroyed the Iraqi state and much of the country’s infrastructure, produced devastating immediate and long-term impact on the health of Iraqis and the environment, directly contributed to the rise of the Islamic State and its conquest and occupation and destruction of a huge swath of Iraq and neighboring countries (especially Syria), and produced a series of governments in the region which, even when there is a veneer of democracy, are incredibly corrupt and unable effectively to govern fractured societies, while continuing routinely to commit large scale human rights violations against their citizens.

 

– Like the Iraqi invasion before it, an attack on Iran under the present circumstances would be a clear violation of international law–a crime against peace, which is an international crime of the highest order, and delineated as such in the Nuremberg Judgement. Indeed, absent a valid claim of self-defense any attack on Iran, never mind a full-scale invasion and occupation by the United States, would violate the core articles of the UN Charter (Articles 2(4), 33, 39 & 51) as well as the legal imperative to seek a peaceful settlement of all international disputes. Such “breaches of the peace” are the most serious violations of international law a country can commit, and the US doing so again less than a generation after the Iraqi invasion would situate it outside the community of nations, making it widely regarded as a dangerous and destabilizing rogue actor whose behavior is the very opposite of the self-understanding and justifications of the Trump Administration for its actions. In this regard the recent array of threats, sanctions, and provocations are themselves flagrant violations of international law even without any direct recourse to force; only self defense against a prior armed attack across as international border legally justifies a claim of self-defense. Absent this, all threats, as well as uses of force, are considered severe violations of international law.

 

Particularly in the context of the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which verifiably halted the potential for Iran to pursue a nuclear weapons program, and the imposition of crippling economic sanctions against the government and people of Iran without a UN Security Council mandate, the present policy of increasing pressure on Iran and irresponsibly raising risks violent confrontation that could quickly escalate to an all-out war, coupled with the inflammatory discourse of regime change championed by National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, constitute clear interference with Iranian sovereignty rights as well as with the inalienable right of self-determination enjoyed by the Iranian people. As such, these policies are violations of international law and of the UN Charter, inherently destabilizing, and themselves pose unacceptable threat to peace.

 

Recent events have alarmed us, demonstrating how ill-defined policy goals, bellicose rhetoric, policies and brinkmanship, and operating outside the well-defined framework of international law can easily bring countries to the brink of mutual disaster. The ongoing global impact of the Iraqi invasion (from the rise of ISIS to the aborted Arab Spring, greater support for authoritarian rulers, and the civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen and the massive wave of refugees these dynamics have caused) reminds us that the Middle East, and the world at large, cannot afford another major war in the region. Such a conflict would undoubtedly lead to a horrific toll of dead and injured, major environmental destruction, large scale forced migration, world-wide recession, as well as producing other equally dangerous and unintended consequences.

 

Finally, we note here that the Trump Administration’s bellicose policies towards Iran are inseparable from its uncritical and unrestrained support of authoritarian and repressive policies across the region, from the ever-deepening Israeli occupation to the Saudi and UAE war in Yemen, the destruction of democracy in Egypt and the frustration of democratic aspirations of citizens across the Middle East and North Africa, all of which contribute to the immiseration and increasingly forced migration of millions of people across the region and the unjustified repression of their legitimate aspirations for freedom, justice, democracy and sustainable development.

 

We therefore call upon President Trump, first, to pull back from any thought of an unsanctioned attack; second, to rejoin and implement the 2015 nuclear agreement; third, to terminate the enhanced sanctions he continues to impose on Iran; and fourth, to enter into immediate and good faith negotiations towards a normalization of relations with the Islamic Republic. Along with these immediate steps, we call for an honest appraisal of the costs of historic and current American policies in the Middle East and North Africa, and their reorientation towards support for freedom and democracy.

 

In the absence of these steps, we call on the US Congress to act swiftly and decisively to prevent the President from leading the United States into war, and call on our fellow academics, policymakers, diplomats, military officials, elected representatives, and concerned citizens to assert whatever pressure necessary to prevent the Administration from engaging in any kind of attack on Iran, or any other country, outside the bounds of international law and without the clear and explicit authorization of the UN Security Council.

 

Signed (partial list, as of June 21),

 

Beth Baron, Distinguished Professor, Director, Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center, Graduate Center, City University of New York, past President of the Middle East Studies Association

 

Joel Beinin, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History, Emeritus Stanford University, past President of the Middle East Studies Association

 

Laurie A. Brand, Robert Grandford Wright Professor of International Relations and Middle East Studies University of Southern California, past President of the Middle East Studies Association

 

Charles E. Butterworth, Emeritus Professor, Department of Government & Politics, University of Maryland

 

Juan R. Cole, Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, past President of Middle East Studies Association

 

John Esposito, University Professor, Professor of Religion & International Affairs and Islamic Studies, Georgetown University, past President of the Middle East Studies Association and American Academy of Religion

 

Richard Falk, Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University, former, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Territories

 

Nader Hashemi, Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies

 

Suad Joseph, Professor of Anthropology and Women and Gender Studies at the University of California, Davis, past President of the Middle East Studies Association

 

Mark LeVine, Professor of History, UC Irvine, Chair, Program in Global Middle East Studies

 

Zachary Lockman, Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, and History, past President of the Middle East Studies Association

 

Valentine M. Moghadam, Professor of Sociology and International Affairs, Northeastern University, past President of the Middle East Studies Association

 

Ahmad Sadri, Gorter Chair of Islamic World Studies, Professor of Sociology, Lake Forest College

 

Bolton’s Red Sky Worldview: ICC, International Law, and Iran

26 Sep

Bolton’s Game: Not Sovereignty, Not International Law—Clearing the Path for U.S., Geopolitical Primacy

 

To be sure, on September 10thJohn Bolton, Trump’s National Security Advisor, pushed all the thematic buttons that might beexpected of a luncheon speaker invitedto address the Federalist Society, long known asthe ideological home of rabid advocates of the so-called ‘new sovereignty.’ The hallmark of this pre-Trump neocon law bastion of Scalia worshippers was their role in the career nurturing of such jurisprudential embarrassments as John Yoo and Jack Goldsmith. Yoo the notorious author of the torture memos and Goldsmith the public servant usually give credit forcrafting an expert approval text validating ‘extreme rendition’ of CIA suspects to notorious ‘black sites,’ known around the world as safe havens for torture, surely acrude instance ofex parte criminal legalism. It should be noted that both of these individuals are senior faculty members at two of America’s finest law schools, UC Berkeley and Harvard, both of which exhibit institutional pride in the fact of treating legal ethics as integral part of professional education.

 

John Bolton was the safest of choices as a featured speaker, having earned his Federalist Society credentials many times over.  He seems perversely proud of leading the unprecedented effort on behalf of George W. Bush in 2002 to ‘unsign’ the Rome Statute, the treaty that brought the International Criminal Court (ICC) into force in 2002, and now has 123 sovereignstates as parties, including all NATO members except the U.S. and Turkey. At the talk, Bolton paused to boast of orchestrating this unusual move to highlight and underscore this repudiation of the ICC by the Bush presidency, and in the process, of the crusading success of a transnational civil society movement and a coalition of moderate governments around the world to institutionalize individual accountability of political leaders and military commanders for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  It should be humiliating that such a global undertaking to strengthen international criminal law enforcement is regarded as posing a direct threat to Americans and governmental policy. It puts a preemptivetwist on the previous reliance on ‘victors’ justice’ to ensure that none of the Allied crimes during World War II would be subjected to legal scrutiny while the crimes of German and Japanese political leaders and military commanders were being prosecuted.

 

Actually, even if Bush had not bothered to have the Clinton signature removed, the U.S. would never in this dark period of anti-internationalism have joined the ICC. To become a party to the treaty would have needed the additional step of ratification of the Rome Statute, and that would require an affirmative vote of 2/3rds of the U.S. Senate. A favorable outcome would have been even more unlikely than for Donald Trump to nominate Anita Hill or Robert Mueller as his next choices for the U.S. Supreme Court. In this sense, only the up tempo language of Bolton is notable for its willingness to denigrate and even smear the ICC.

 

Slick Willy Clinton had his own reservations about the treaty and never took the normal step following an official signature of a negotiated inter-governmental agreement of submitting it for ratification. Indeed, it is a technical violation of customary international law that imposes a good faith obligation on governments to seek formal adherence of signed treaties in accordance with constitutional procedures of the particular state. In other words, even the supposedly liberal side of American political life has opted out of its earlier tradition of supporting the institutional development of the Rule of Law on a global level as an aspect of its commitment to the role of law and institutions as essential ingredients of a peaceful and just world order.

 

Congress removed any doubt as to its hostility toward the ICC when in 2002 it passed the American Service-Members’ Protection Act, authorizing the President to use all necessary means, even force, to prevent prosecution at The Hague of Americans accused of war crimes or crimes against humanity. What is especially disturbing about such a slap at criminal accountability is the absence of slightest show of concern as to whether the allegations in a particular case were well grounded in evidence or not.  When Bolton alluded to this bit of ultra-nationalism he appropriately noted that the legislation enjoyed bipartisan support, which suggests that the American posture of claiming ‘lawless geopolitics’ for itself is a fixed feature of world order for the seeable future no matter who occupies the Oval Office. It is ironic that while criminality is ensured of impunity, the practice of impunity, a dubious encroachment on the logic of legality, is not only claimed but offered that most unusual feature of international enforcement.

 

Bolton implied that the problems of criminality in world affairs are associated with the leaders of the foreign adversaries of the United States, identifying such individuals as Saddam Hussein, Hitler, Stalin, and Qaddafi. His assertion implied that the good behavior of the United States and its allies was such as to be inherently benevolent and the bad behavior of its adversaries would require more than law to deter: “The hard men of history are not deterred by fantasies of international law such as the International Criminal Court.” We can only meekly ask, “Are the supposedly soft men  of history, such as Trump or G.W. Bush, any less undeterred?” “And why should we ever expect these hard men to be deterred if the ICC and international law are but ‘fantasies.’

 

Getting back to Bolton’s luncheon remarks, his own summary of his feverish assault on the audacity of the ICC to consider investigating Israel’s international crimes, and the alleged crimes of the Taliban and the United States in Afghanistan reads as follows:This administration will fight back to protect American constitutionalism, our sovereignty, and our citizens. No committee of foreign nations will tell us how to govern ourselves and defend our freedom. We will stand up for the US constitution abroad, just as we do at home. And, as always, in every decision we make, we will put the interests of the American people first.

 

These are predictable sentiments, given the occasion and taking into account Bolton’s long advocacy of a militarist foreign policy that disregards the restraints of law, morality, and political prudence. It isthe ethics and politics of this disregard that is Bolton’s realmessage. We should be attentive to this real message hidden within the fiery ‘sovereignty, first’ verbiage, which is that the geopolitical practices of the United States will not be subject to legal accountability no matter how flagrant the violation of fundamental norms might be in the future. Bolton may overstep the bounds of the liberal order when he attacks the ICC as an institution, which had not been previously treated as a threat to American foreign policy. Only recently did it dawn on Washington policymakers that the ICC might at some point actually challenge what the U.S. and its allies, most notably Israel, are doing in the world.

 

Previously, the U.S. was a supporter of criminal accountability of foreign leaders, especially if they were adversaries of the U.S.. It should be remembered that even during the Bush presidency, the government sent dozens of government lawyers to Iraq to help prepare a war crimes prosecution of Saddam Hussein and his entourage after their capture. This capture occurred in the course of a war of aggression initiated against Iraq in 2003 without any prior provocation. The U.S. attack, regime change, and long intrusive occupation took place, it should be recalled, despite the failure of the U.S. Government to secure the support of the UN Security Council despite a feverish attempt to gain authorization.

 

In other words, so far as even the Boltons of this world are concerned, there is nothing wrong with criminal accountability of leaders and military personnel so long as the indictments, prosecutions, and punishments are confined to enemies of the United States. Such a self-serving geopolitical appropriation of international criminal law should not be confused with legitimate law, which presupposes that the rules, norms, and procedures apply to all relevant actors, the strong as well as the weak, the victors as well as the defeated, geopolitical wrongdoers as well their adversaries.

 

What is sad about the Bolton worldview, and indeed the new sovereignty ideologues that shape the public image of the Federalist Society, aside from its influence in the Trump Era, is that it completely misunderstands the relevance of international law in this period of global interdependence and planetary challenge. State-centric world order as beset by geopolitical rivalries is a blueprint for civilizational collapse in the 21stcentury, and probably represents the worst possible way to uphold core sovereign rights and national interests over time.

 

What is still sadder is that the Bolton/Trump worldview, which seems so outlandish and anachronistic is not that extremist, compared to Democratic establishment approaches, when it comes to behavior. It represents a surreal rhetorical extension of the bipartisan consensus that is complacent about the failures of the neoliberal international order, including especially the destructive impacts of predatory globalization on democratic forms of governance, on safeguarding of social and economic rights, and on ecological sustainability.

 

As many have noted Hilary Clinton’s push toward a confrontation with Russia was more in keeping with Bolton’s preferred foreign policy than the more accommodationist proposals of Trump during his presidential campaign. It is against such a background that I reach the lamentable conclusion that when it comes world peace and global justice the Democratic Party establishment has little to offer when it comes to foreign policy, and may be more inclined to initiate wars and raise geopolitical tensions than even their reactionary and militarist Republican rivals. Bernie Sanders, although international affairs is not his strong suit, at least gestured toward a less militarist and dysfunctional  foreign policy. For the Democratic Party to generate enthusiasm upon American youth and the deeply discontented in the country it must reinvent itself by embracing progressive and forthcoming policies than in the recent past and positions that are more constructive and programmatic than even the Sanders foreign policy. Without such bold moves there will be a loud sigh of relief when Trump loses control of Congress in November, and even louder one when Trump leaves the White House, but the American ship of state will still resemble the maiden voyage of the Titantic.

 

As if to confirm the analysis above we should take account of Bolton past warmongering toward North Korea including advocating a preemptive strike, and recently articulating grossly unlawful threats of force directed at Iran. It should be appreciated that contemporary international law, as embodied in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter forbids threatsas well as uses of aggressive force.

Such a prohibition underlines the criminality of Bolton’s recent formulations of military threats directed at Iran: “I might imagine they [“the mullahs of Tehran”] would take me seriously when I assure them today: If you cross us, our allies, or our partners; if you harm our citizens; if you continue to lie, cheat and deceive, yes, there will indeed be hell to pay.” Such chilling words must be understood in the context of Bolton’s past advocacy of bombing Iran and of the Trump approach to the region that can be summarized in a few words: ‘do what Netanyahu wants.’

 

Even if war and aggression do not actually occur, and we must pray that they do not, this kind of geopolitical bullying by a leading official of a country that has up to one thousand military bases spread around the world should be criminalized, and not just criticized as intemperate.

 

 

Interview: Middle East Turmoil: Israeli Massacre, Palestinian Grievances

3 Apr

The Middle East is Heating Up — Again: An Interview with Richard Falk (with C.J. Polychroniou)

 

[Prefatory Note: This is a somewhat modified text of an interview of two weeks ago conducted by the Greek journalist and author, C.J Polychroniou. Since then several developments have occurred, none more significant than the Return Home Land Day demonstrations of March 30, 2018. The original interview appeared in several online publications. The format is altered to make somewhat more reader friendly.]

 

CJP: Richard, let’s start with Donald Trump’s decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the US embassy there by May of this year. First, is this legal from the standpoint of international law, and, second, what are likely to be the long-term effects of the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on the region as a whole?

 

RF: There is no question, Chronis, that Trump’s Jerusalem policy relating to recognition and the move of the American embassy is regionally and religiously provocative and disruptive, underscoring the abandonment by Washington of even the pretense of being a trustworthy intermediary that can be relied upon by both sides to work for a sustainable peace between the two peoples. Some critics of the initiative are saying that the U.S. is free to situate its embassy in Jerusalem, but the whole of Jerusalem isn’t Israel. The status of this holy city remains to be determined and East Jerusalem, where the Old City is located, which for the present is considered to be an ‘occupied territory’ in international humanitarian law.

 

Recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is a clear violation of international humanitarian law, which rests on the central proposition that an occupied territory should not be altered in any way that changes its status and character without the consent of the occupied society. It also is a unilateral rejection of a near unanimous international consensus, endorsed by the United Nations, that the future of Jerusalem should be settled by negotiations between the parties as a part of a broader peacemaking process. Israel had much earlier violated both international law and breached this international consensus by unilaterally annexing an enlarged Jerusalem, and declared that the whole city, within expanded boundaries, would be the ‘undivided, eternal capital’ of Israel. It is notable that the General Assembly on December 21, 2017 approved by an overwhelming majority of 128-8 (35 abstentions) a strong condemnation of the U.S. move on Jerusalem, with even America’s closest allies joining in this vote of censure.

 

It is difficult to predict the long-term consequences of this diplomatic rupture. It depends, above all, on whether the U.S. Government acts convincily to restore its claim to act as a conflict-resolving intermediary. The Trump administration continues to insist that it is working on a peace plan that will require painful compromises by both Palestine and Israel. Of course, given the unconditional alignment of Washington with Netanyahu’s views of Israel and the Palestinian future, as well as the orientation of those entrusted with drafting the plan, it is highly unlikely that even Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, generally accommodationist will be inclined to enter a diplomatic process that is virtually certain to be weighted so heavily in favor of Israel. Yet as many have come to appreciate, nothing is harder to predict than the future of Middle Eastern politics.

At the same time, Jerusalem has an abiding significance for both Islam and Christianity that makes it almost certain for the indefinite future that there will be formidable regional and civilizational resistance to subsuming Jerusalem under Israeli sovereign control.

 

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CJP: Israel appears bent on restricting Iran’s rising influence as a regional power in the Middle East. How far do you think the US can go in assisting Israel to contain Tehran’s strategy for empowering Shia’s?

 

Richard Falk: Israel and Saudi Arabia are both for different reasons determined to confront Iran, and quite possibly, initiate a military encounter with potentially widespread ramifications for the entire region, if not the world. A quick glance at the Syrian conflict suggests how complex and dangerous is this effort to destabilize the Iranian governing process, with the dual objectives of destabilizing the governing process mixed with the more ambitious goal of causing civil strife of sufficient magnitude as to produce a civil war, and ideally from the perspectives of Iran’s adversaries, regime change.

 

The Israeli adherence to this recklessness seems partly motivated by its overall security policy of seeking to weaken any country in the region that is hostile to its presence and has the potential military capability to threaten Israeli security and regional role in a serious manner. Israel has been so far successful in neutralizing each of its credible adversaries in the region (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, Syria) with the exception of Iran. In this sense, Iran stands out as the last large unfinished item on Israel’s post-1967 geopolitical agenda. Israel’s real intentions are difficult to pin down, shifting with context and perceived opportunity. Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders frequently manipulate the alleged Iranian threat to cause fear among Israelis. Their goal seems to be the mobilization of domestic support for adhering to an aggressive foreign policy. This manipulation panics many Israeli security specialists who express are more alert to the risks of an actual military confrontation with Iran than are political leaders.

 

Saudi motivations are quite different, associated with a fierce regional rivalry that is articulated in terms of a sectarian clash between Shia and Sunni Islam, aggravated by a concern that Iran’s influence increased as a result of the Iraq and Syrian Wars, which both seem to have outcomes favorable to Tehran. The sectarian rationale of the conflict seems intended to disguise the more fundamental explanation, which is that there is a power struggle between these two sovereign states to determine which one will achieve regional ascendancy. The sectarian explanation was also somewhat undermined by the intensity with which the Saudis and other Gulf monarchies used their financial and diplomatic resources to crush the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt despite its strong Sunni identity. From the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 Tehran looked upon the monarchy governing Saudi Arabia as corrupt and decadent in the same manner as it regarded the Shah’s dynastic rule in Iran as politically illegitimate.

 

Your focus on how far the U.S. can go in restricting Iran’s influence is difficult to assess at this point. Trump’s virtual repudiation of the agreement on Iran’s Nuclear Program seems to express a commitment to join with Israel and Saudi Arabia to engage in coercive diplomacy, consisting of intensifying sanctions, covert operations to encourage internal opposition, and a variety of military threats. Where this will lead, if indeed it goes forward in defiance of the other parties to the agreement and almost all UN members, is anybody’s guess, but it is a highly irresponsible diplomatic gambit that risks a deadly ‘war of choice.’

 

Trump’s regional diplomacy, such as it is, has been most notable for giving even greater emphasis to the ‘special relationships’ with Israel and Saudi Arabia than earlier American leaders. Even previously, under Obama, George W. Bush, and prior presidents, the subordination of American strategic interests and national values to this posture of unquestioning support, which is the operational significance of designating these links as special relationships.

 

 

 

CJP: Syria’s civil war not only continues unabated but the country has become a battlefield for the spread of the influence of various powers in the region, including Turkey and Russia. Do you see a way out of this mess?

 

Richard Falk: The Syrian War is among the most complex conflict patterns in the history of warfare. Not only is there an internal struggle for control of the Syrian state that has been waged by not one, but by several insurgent movements that are not even compatible with one another. There is also a regional proxy war pitting Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar against Iran, with Turkey playing a confusing role that sometimes seems guided by anti-Damascus goals but at other times is preoccupied with curtailing the Kurdish challenge. The various national struggles of the Kurds for autonomous rights, possibly independent political communities, threatens the territorial integrity of several Middle Eastern states, as well as Syria. In addition to all of this there are major multi-faceted and fluid Russian and American involvements on opposite sides, although not even this opposition is clear cut and consistent. For a time there was an almost collaborative effort to defeat ISIS and obtain a Syrian ceasefire, although the basic involvement has been to put Russia on the side of the Damascus government and the U.S. as aligned with the insurgencies.

 

Because the anti-ISIS dimension of the conflict is at odds with the anti-Damascus dimension, depending on the priority accorded to one rather than the other, alignments are contradictory and shifted over time. Sometimes precedence has been given to achieving regime-change in Damascus by removing Assad from power, and in such contexts, it was acknowledged silently that ISIS was the most effective military challenge on the ground being mounted against the Syrian government. At other times, the counterterrorist campaign against ISIS was given uppermost prominence, and there was even high-level indications that Washington was willing to live with the Assad regime, a position given added credence recently due to the success of the Syrian government in quelling its opposition, making continued opposition futile politically and irresponsible ethically. Whenever pragmatism gained the upper hand, Russia and Iran were accepted as partners in these efforts to defeat and destroy ISIS.

 

All wars eventually come to an end, and I am sure Syria will not be an exception. Yet it difficult at present to project a solution that brings about more than a ceasefire, and even this kind of ending of what has become an orgy of senseless killing is highly elusive, as each of the many parties to the conflict jockeys violently for minor positional advantages to improve its bargaining leverage when the conflict enters some kind of negotiating phase. Although all wars end eventually, internal wars of this kind, especially with such complex regional and international aspects, can simmer for decades with no clear winner or loser as has been the case in the Philippines and Colombia. It seems as if at present the Syrian government believes it is on the verge of victory, and is pressing for an outcome in East Ghouta and Idlib such that it will not be expected to make significant concessions.

 

The best hope, which has been the case for several years, is that the various parties will recognize that the situation is indeed a mess that is causing mass suffering and widespread devastation without producing political gains. Yet translating that recognition into a formula that produces an end to the violence has so far proved futile and frustrating as each party sees the conflict from its partisan perspective of gain and loss.

 

 CJP: With the two-state solution having ceased long ago being a viable alternative, what are the most likely prospects for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations?

 

Richard Falk: The safest response is to anticipate a persistence of the present status quo, which involves continuing Israeli expansionism by way of the settlements and the persistence of the Palestinian ordeal, with some resistance in the occupied West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem and a growing global solidarity movement exerting pressure on Israel in the form of the BDS campaign. There may be some attention given to a variety of proposals to end the conflict by revived diplomacy. The Trump blustery promise of ‘a deal of the century’ has received skeptical attention, but its likely one-sidedness makes it almost certain to be a non-starter, especially as the Israeli government feels insufficient pressure to produce a peaceful solution based on a genuine political compromise and the Palestinian Authority remains unwilling to accept a demilitarized statelet as a token Palestine state, or even to participate in negotiations that are so obviously stacked against it. For public relations reasons, the international consensus clings to the two-state solution even though, as your question suggests, its viability has long been superseded by Israeli expansionist policies intended to fulfill the Zionist goal of making the boundaries of Israel coterminous with the whole of the Jewish biblical conception of the ‘promised land.’

 

There are other outcomes that are possible. Daniel Pipes has been promoting what he dubbed ‘the victory caucus,’ which posits Israel as the victor in the struggle to establish a Jewish state and Palestine the loser. Pipes argues that diplomacy has failed to resolve the conflict after years of effort, and hence that the only alternative is for one side to win and the other to lose if peace is to be established. He encourages Israel to escalate pressure on the Palestinians to make them see the light, accept the reality of a Jewish state, and move on. Such an initiative is distasteful to those who support the Palestinian struggle, and it seems oblivious to the claims of international law and international morality as these are generally understood in the 21st century when colonialism and ethnic nationalism are illegitimate forms of political control and the right of self-determination has become universally accepted as an inalienable right of an oppressed people in the circumstances of the Palestinians.

 

In my view, neither the two-state nor a consensual one-state outcome of the struggle is currently within the realm of political feasibility. We are necessarily speculating about future political scenarios within the domain of ‘political impossibility.’ Yet the impossible sometimes happens. Colonialism was successfully challenged, the Soviet Union collapsed, South Africa renounced apartheid, the Arab Spring erupted. In none of these cases did such occurrences seem possible except in retrospect. After the events, as expected, experts appeared who explained why these impossible developments were, if closely considered, inevitable.

 

In this spirit, I think it useful to acknowledge the limits of rational assessment, and either remain silent, or offer for consideration, a solution that is ‘impossible,’ yet ‘desirable’ from the perspective of humane values, which in this case involves a secure, equitable, and sustainable peace for both peoples that is, above all, sensitive to their equality and to their distinct, yet legitimate, claims to self-determination. I find it unimaginable to realize such a peace within the current structure of the Middle East, which consists of a group of artificial and autocratic states held together by varying mixtures of coercion, corruption, and external military assistance. Israel/Palestine peace cannot unfold in a benevolent manner without a structural return to the Ottoman framework of regional unity and ethnic community, and possibly Islamic caliphate, adapted to post-colonial realities. Such a stateless Middle East would reverse the harm inflicted on the region by the imposition of European territorial states through the infamous Sykes-Picot diplomacy.

 

 CJP: South Africa’s former apartheid system has been employed analytically by many to describe the current status of the state of Israel with regard to it’s treatment towards Palestinians. Indeed, it is from such a comparison that the Boycott, Divestment and Sactions (BDS) movement was borne, but to what extent are the two cases compatible? South Africa was pretty much isolated by the early 1980s, but the same cannot be said about Israel today. In fact, Israel has even managed to expand recently it’s network of allies with Greece and the Sunni states. So, what are your thoughts on the comparison between the former South African apartheid regime and Israel and the effectiveness of the strategy of BDS?

 

RF: Your question raises two distinct issues: Is Israel responsibly regarded as an ‘apartheid state’? If so, is Israeli apartheid similar to South African apartheid?

 

Prior to responding to these questions, it seems helpful to clarify the status of the international crime of apartheid as it has evolved in international law, taking particular note of the fact that although the name and core idea is based on the specific condemnation of South African racism, the international crime is detached from this precedent. The essence of the international crime is any form of discriminatory domination by one race over another that relies on ‘inhuman acts’ to sustain its purposes. In this important sense, Israeli forms of domination over the Palestinian people may be quite different than the domination of whites over blacks in South Africa and yet constitute the international crime of apartheid. Treating apartheid as an international crime is based both on the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid and on the 2002 Rome Statute governing the operations of the International Criminal Court that categorizes ‘apartheid’ in Article 7 as one of eleven types of Crime Against Humanity.

 

In a study commissioned by the UN Economic and Social Commission, Virginia Tilley and I concluded that the policies and practices of Israel toward the Palestinian people as a whole satisfy the requirements of the international crime of apartheid. Our conclusion is based on the view that Israel, to maintain an expanding Jewish state has subjected the Palestinian people to structures of subjugation and victimization that are sustained by excessive violence and other inhuman means. It was our judgment that Jews and Palestinians are distinct ‘races’ as the term is understood in international law. The scope of Israeli apartheid is based on coherent strategies designed to subjugate the Palestinian people whether they are living under occupation, the most obvious case, or as a discriminated minority within Israel or as residents in refugee camps in neighboring countries or living is a global diaspora as involuntary exiles. Each of these domains is connected with the Israeli efforts to ensure not only the prevalence of a Jewish state, but also a secure Jewish majority population that could only be achieved by a process of dispossession, dispersion, and fragmentation, as well as by the denial of any right of return.

 

South African apartheid was very different in its operation as compared to Israeli apartheid. For one thing, white South Africa was a minority demographic in the country and critically dependent on black labor. For another, the South African concept of law, citizenship, and democracy was delineated along racial lines, while Israel claims to be an inclusive democracy, although is more accurately understood to be an ethnocracy. Despite these fundamental differences, the core reality of ‘inhuman acts’ and ‘discriminatory structures of domination’ are present, although distinctly enacted, in both national settings.

 

Finally, it should be understood that such allegations of Israeli apartheid are made on the basis of academic study, and while they may be persuasive morally and politically, it is also true that until a valid tribunal passes judgment on such allegations, the legal status of the allegations remains unresolved, and is of course feverishly contested by Israel and its supporters.

 

CJP: Overall, what are the prospects for restored stability and a positive future for the countries in the Middle East?

 

RF: Without the intervention of unanticipated developments, the prospects are poor. On one level, the extreme turmoil in countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and neighboring Libya are likely to continue and could spread to additional states. On a second level, the regional rivalries between Iran and a Saudi led coalition on the one side and Israel on the other, seem likely to intensify. On a third level, there is no plausible scenario for establishing a sustainable peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. On a fourth level, with the reassertion of Russian engagement and the U.S. pursuit of a strategic agenda related to Israel, oil, political Islam, Iran, and nuclear nonproliferation, the region has as in the Cold War become a site of dangerous geopolitical maneuver and confrontation. On a fifth level, perhaps less serious than the others, is the sort of intra-regional tensions that have given rise to the Gulf Crisis centered upon the relations of Qatar to other Gulf countries, and to the role of Turkey as partner and antagonist, especially in relation to the continuing search of the Kurdish peoples for self-determination. Finally, on a sixth level, there is almost certain to be new expressions of internal strife and various extremisms that strike against the West, inviting retaliation, which will probably be accompanied by further migratory flows that aggravate relations between the Middle East and Europe.

 

The drastic and prolonged victimization of the Middle East also exhibits the failure of the West to understand, much less address, the root causes of conflict and chaos that have produced mass suffering and material deprivations throughout the region. These root causes can be traced back at least a century to the imposition of European style states on the region, reflecting colonial ambitions, in the aftermath of World War I and by way of a colonial pledge to the world Zionist movement to support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, then inhabited by a Jewish minority not larger than 6%. The other principal root cause related to the abundance of oil in several parts of the Middle East, which created rentier mentalities in development contexts and provided strong strategic motivations for intervention and control by global political actors.

 

In the end, this complexity joining the historical past to the tormented past creates a dismal set of prospects for the future of the Middle East. At this point, only paradoxical, although unrealistic, hopes for prudence and moderation can make the portrayal of the situation less gloomy than the evidence and trajectory suggest.

 

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After the Interview: A Postscript on the Land Day Massacre (‘Great March of Return’)

 

The precise statistics remain inconclusive, although there exists general agreement that more than 15 Palestinians were killed by live ammunition fired by Israeli snipers stationed at the border with Gaza, another estimated 750 Palestinians were injured by ammo and rubber bullets resulting in an estimated total of 1,500 injuries, including from tear gas dropped on the largely unarmed demonstration. Whether the Israeli behavior should be viewed as ‘excessive force’ or ‘collective punishment,’ or both, is a matter for debate, but there is no question that the killings and firepower were in direct conflict with Israel’s obligations as an Occupying Power as specified in the Fourth Geneva Convention. Israel’s ‘disengagement’ in 2005 did not end the occupation from the perspective of international humanitarian law, but rather rearranged its management, with control and deployments being concentrated on the borders rather than throughout Gaza, and reinforced by periodic massive military incursions causing large numbers of civilian casualties and widespread devastation.

 

This latest interaction returned the Palestinian litany of grievances to the front pages of the world’s media often accompanied by gruesome pictures, but also revealed two kinds of gaps: between the Western and non-Western media and between the mainstream media response and that of civil society. The mainstream media worries that this is a public relations setback for Israel and urges restraint on both sides. In contrast, the activist segment of civil society condemns the Israeli tactics as constituting a massacre, and calls for an arms embargo. This distinction at the level of response is revealing, with the mainstream and almost every Western government pinning their public hopes on reviving negotiations aiming at a political solution based on the establishment of a sovereign and independent Palestine. Engaged civil society has lost all faith in diplomacy under current conditions, believes only escalating nonviolent pressure can change the political climate sufficiently to make negotiations sufficiently promising to undertake, and then only if the two-state mantra is abandoned once and for all.