The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged US
They Won’t Miss You When You’re Gone

In  The American Interest, a funny and well-written piece by (former official) Eliot Cohen on the last year of an American presidency:

An administration in its last year resembles a small woodland creature reaching the end of its life, seeking only a quiet burrow in which to meet its demise. Like that moribund animal, an administration will exhibit pointless twitches of frantic activity before the very end. These mostly involve extensive foreign travel to nice or particularly interesting places, which gets you away from the polite yawns of Congressmen and Senators (and worse, their staffs) that meet your opinions back home. But sooner or later you return to Washington, and there realize that your unglamorous duty consists chiefly in leaving the dog’s breakfast of a policy in the least-desperate shape you can for the next team.
AsidesThe EditorsUS
American Qur'an

The artist Sandow Birk spent 9 years handwriting and illustrating an American Quran, featuring scenes from his native California. From the artist's site: 

At a time when the United States was involved in two wars against Islamic nations and declared itself to be in a cultural and philosophical struggle against Islamic extremists, American artist Sandow Birk’s latest project considers the Qur’an as it was intended – as a universal message to humankind. If the Qur’an is indeed a divine message to all peoples, he ponders, what does it mean to an individual American in the 21st Century? How does the message of the Qur’an relate to us, as Americans, in this life, in this time? What is this message that we have spent so much blood and treasure fighting against, and how can the message of the Qur’an be applied to a contemporary American life? In short, what might the Qur’an mean to contemporary Americans?

 I love this, and you can see it all here. HT Simon. 


The Chapel Hill murders

From The New Yorker:

“Isolated incident” was the preferred verbiage of Ripley Rand, the local U.S. attorney. Rand said that he saw no reason to treat the targeting and assassination of these three Muslims as “part of a targeted campaign against Muslims”—as if a broader conspiracy were needed for Hicks’s crime to have broader significance.
So there you have it. Some people are sensitive about parking. One such person stood his ground. Now three young innocents are dead, and he’s being held without bond in the county jail. A lamentable affair, but, told like that, shorn of all context, it’s not unlike a song on the radio, folkloric. Our imaginations are primed to grasp it.
What’s hard to get one’s mind around is that everyone who’s singing this tune—the police, the wife, the prosecutor—seems to think that it’s reassuring. Getting blown away by a neighbor just because he’s pissed off at you for some ridiculous reason has become the equivalent of a natural disaster in our country, with our gun culture. It’s got nothing to do with the killer’s ideology, or with the victim’s identity. That’s the thinking. And, with this “parking” alibi, we’re being asked to imagine that these killings are a private tragedy, not some big public deal—not terrorism, not even like terrorism. We’re being told to believe that the vigilante killing of three young Americans is socially and politically meaningless.
"The Republican Senator From Israel"

House Speaker John Boehner has invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the US Congress (and presumably make the case against the White Houses's policy of engagement with Iran) two weeks before elections are held in Israel. The decision by the Republican-controlled US Congress and the Israeli Likud party to pursue their own joint foreign policy -- independent of their respective nations -- has angered the White House. It's also apparently not well viewed by much of Israel's political establishment and public.  From Forbes: 

According to Hatnuah leader, Tzipi Livni, Netanyahu is sabotaging israel’s critical relationship with Washington. [Ed. Note: Hatnuah is another political party in Israel running in a coalition with Labour.]
“A responsible prime minister who first thinks of the good of his country’s citizens does not do such a thing,” Livni said, adding, “A responsible prime minister would know to work with the president of the United States — with any president — and protect our most important interests.”
If the polls are to be believed, there are quite a few Israelis who share Livni’s take on the subject.
So, how did all this happen?
It turns out, the plan to have the Israeli Prime Minister speak to Congress, without first discussing with the White House, was the brainchild of Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer who has, for weeks now, been endorsing the re-election of Bibi Netanyahu on American television programs despite explicit Israeli Civil Service regulations prohibiting him from doing so.

He also didn't mention what he was about to do to John Kerry, who he met the day before announcing the invitation. The White House has said it will not meet with Netanyahu when he comes. Reuters reports that the Israelis are saying they were "misled" by Republicans into thinking it was a bipartisan invitation. 

AsidesThe EditorsUS, Israel, Netany
But I Knew That He Knew That I Knew He Knew Too
Iranians welcoming the Geneva delegation back home, Serat News, Nov. 25

Iranians welcoming the Geneva delegation back home, Serat News, Nov. 25

According to Sheera Frenkel, Israeli officials were made aware by Saudi Arabia of the backdoor talks between the US and Iran detailed in depth by Laura Rozen at Al Monitor this past weekend, which culminated in the interim Geneva agreement. In brief, the deal will see Iran recoup some US$7-8 billion in sanctions relief through 2014 if, in exchange, Tehran does not enrich any more uranium over 5%, allows for new IAEA site inspections, and downgrads its remaining enriched-to-20% uranium stockpile. Some outstanding issues, like the Arak heavy water reactor under construction and Iran's "right to enrich," remain to be discussed in talks down the road. Saudi Arabia would not have been a venue for these talks, of course - nor would its closest GCC associate, Bahrain, given the Al Khalifas' mistrust of the Islamic Republic - but other Gulf states were. Namely Oman -- which the US uses as a third party to approach untouchables like the Taliban and the Islamic Republic -- and perhaps the UAE as well (unlike its Saudi neighbors, the Emirati Cabinet very quickly  welcomed the interim accord). News of the meeting went from these states to Riyadh and then probably got to Tel Aviv, obviously infuriating the Israelis because they were not told up front about the talks. 

So, if the Israelis did know weeks in advance, that makes Netanyahu's intransigence this past Fall more explainable. Appraised of the progress being made in the talks outside normal channels, he was nonetheless unable to make public Israel's foreknowledge of the deliberations. He is not so reckless as to think he could get away with letting the cat out the bag like that; doing so really would cause significant damage to US-Israeli relations. He had few options to confront a process leading to a deal he opposed because it did not dismantle all Iranian nuclear capabilities. He and his supporters leaned on the most receptive audiences they had: the US Congress, the French Foreign Ministry, and the Sunday talk show circuit, making the case that no deal would be better than a "bad deal". 

Some officials gave Yedioth Ahronoth and Channel 10 details of US-Iran meetings that showed the backdoor to Iran was in place for at least a year. These reports, however, did not affect the pace of the negotiations or public opinion. Netanyahu now has to worry a lot more about the home front, where he faces members of the security establishment expressing support for the deal, politicians outside his coalition criticizing his criticism of Obama, and his reappointed Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, breathing down his neck. Even the Israeli stock exchange seems to be weighing in against him: its ongoing rally, which began days before Sunday, was not adversely impacted by the deal.

More importantly, though, is what this episode says about the response of certain American allies to the interim deal. The Saudis are unhappy, and Netanyahu even more so. But their leverage going forward is limited, even though it would not take much to trip up the agreement if Iran is found to be in non-compliance. The Obama Administration has thrown its entire political capital behind the deal, which will be very hard, even for AIPAC and Democratic hawks, to handle. There is very little the Saudis can do after already protesting the US handling of the Syria crisis with their refusal of a UN seat and their minister-princes' complaints in The Times, Bloomberg, and The Wall Street Journal. As an al Quds al Arabi editorial put it, "[i]n order to reach this agreement, Iran has played the many cards it has been working to prepare for decades, and also the cards it has acquired from the mistakes of the United States and its European allies after the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, and from the accumulation of the mistakes of the Arab regimes, which do not have a single balancing pillar that presents a real strategy for confronting the real danger surrounding the Arab region."

But worst of all from Netanyahu's perspective, is that in offering sanctions amelioration, Iran seems to gain legitimacy in international affairs (for Saudi Arabia, this fear is also felt, and directly connected to the outcome of the Syrian civil war). This deal is a stopgap measure meant to halt Iranian activities while negotiations continue, so it is not an economic godsend. Chip away at the sanctions regime, and Iran's economy could start to see results, which is especially important for the leadership if this deal leads to a lasting agreement. But it is the prospective dilution of these sanctions (not their financial bottom-line) that deeply disturbs Netanyahu, whether you believe he is serious about it being 1938 all over again or not, because it raises the possibility that Europe and the US will defer less and less to his demands to keep Iran diplomatically and economically isolated.

The public mood in Iran is mixed between caution and acclaim. The returning negotiating team was feted, and did not seem to draw the sort of hecklers who came out to greet President Rouhani when he returned from the UN. As Golnaz Esfandiari reports, crowds waiting for Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif in Tehran chanted "Kayhan, Israel, Condolences, Condolences" (Kayhan is a hardline newspaper, which like other conservative outlets close to the Supreme Leader emphasized the "flexibility" aspect of the interim deal, downplaying Iran's concessions - in part because the deal is  vague on recognizing the "natural rights" of Iranian nuclear work - and the impact of the sanctions thus far). But overall, the reception in the media was positive and the deal is a loss for the ultraconservative arm of the Islamic Republic's leadership, which would like to pretend the Revolution is still ongoing. By agreeing to the terms of the deal, Iran is electing to participate in the international system on that system's terms (unlike fellow nuclear pariah North Korea). And if economic relief can develop further, even more Iranians, perhaps, may begin to wake up to the fact that the sanctions have been exploited inside Iran to greatly enrich not just certain businessmen and politicians, but the twin pillars of the state itself: the Supreme Leader's office, and the Revolutionary Guards

 

That never-ending path to democracy
protests.jpg

Yesterday, as a who's-who of Egyptian activists and human rights workers was harassed and detained for peacefully protesting, I thought back to US Secretary of State John Kerry's remarks when he visited Egypt earlier this. Kerry glibly subscribed to the version of events of a government that -- on the official state information service web site no less -- compares Morsi to Hitler and claims Egypt has "saved the world from terrorism," and spoke of progress and challenges and Egypt's oh-so-promising roadmap. I couldn't help annotating part of his joint statement with Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy:

Nothing will help bring the people of Egypt together more or provide more economic stability or provide more confidence in the future than an Egypt that is participating in a democratically elected government that is brought about through inclusive, free, and fair elections [There is a very strong chance the Muslim Brotherhood will be excluded from the upcoming elections and from political life generally. April 6, one of the country’s most respected grassroots youth groups, has been denied permission to monitor the elections]. And we will support the interim government and the Egyptian people in that end.

Minister Fahmy and I agreed on the need to ensure that Egyptians are afforded due process with fair and transparent trials, civilians tried in a civilian court [The constitutional assembly has approved an article in the new Egyptian constitution that allows military trials for civilians]. And we discussed the need for all violence to end. All acts of terror in Egypt must come to an end – all acts – for Egyptians to be able to exercise restraint and the need for accountability for those acts of violence.

I mentioned to the Minister that, obviously, part of the roadmap and part of the process of strengthening Egypt’s linkages to the rest of the world will be measured in the way in which the people of Egypt are sustained in their ability to have the right to assemble, the right to express themselves [a new law aggressively restricting the right to protest was issued Monday]. But even as they do that, we also agreed no one should be allowed to practice violence with impunity [Does that include police violence for which no one has been held accountable yet?].

Kerry avoided mentioning Rabaa, Morsi (whose trial was about to start) or indeed the Muslim Brotherhood at all. A few days later he apparently said they “stole” the revolution, a remark that was greeted with satisfaction by the interim government here and with indignation by the Brotherhood. 

The problem with saying the Brotherhood stole the revolution is that it’s a gross simplification (for one thing it doesn’t give credit to all the other dedicated thieves who have been at work the last three years) that completely contradicts US officials’ previous statements. 

June 24, 2012 White House Statement:

The United States congratulates Dr. Mohamed Morsi on his victory in Egypt’s Presidential election, and we congratulate the Egyptian people for this milestone in their transition to democracy.

We look forward to working together with President-elect Morsi and the government he forms, on the basis of mutual respect, to advance the many shared interests between Egypt and the United States.  We believe that it is important for President-elect Morsi to take steps at this historic time to advance national unity by reaching out to all parties and constituencies in consultations about the formation of a new government. We believe in the importance of the new Egyptian government upholding universal values, and respecting the rights of all Egyptian citizens – including women and religious minorities such as Coptic Christians.  Millions of Egyptians voted in the election, and President-elect Morsi and the new Egyptian government have both the legitimacy and responsibility of representing a diverse and courageous citizenry.

Ambassador Anne Patterson, April 28, 2013

As Secretary Kerry said last week to our Congress, the Egyptian military deserves a lot of credit for turning over the government to civilians and returning to its core mission of protecting the country.  And, there is no going back, either to military rule -- which the highly professional Egyptian military rejects -- or to an authoritarian ruler who interferes in the daily life of Egyptians and curtails their freedoms.  Let me be clear: a military intervention is not the answer, as some would claim.  Neither the Egyptian military nor the Egyptian people will accept it as an outcome.

Ambassador Anne Patterson, June 8, 2013

This is the government that you and your fellow citizens elected.  Even if you voted for others, I don’t think the elected nature of this government is seriously in doubt.  Throughout Egypt’s post-revolution series of elections, the United States took the position that we would work with whoever won elections that met international standards, and this is what we have done. 

During his recent visit, Kerry also stepped away from concerns he and president Obama's had voiced just a few months before: 

President Obama, July 3 2013

Nevertheless, we are deeply concerned by the decision of the Egyptian Armed Forces to remove President Morsy and suspend the Egyptian constitution. I now call on the Egyptian military to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible through an inclusive and transparent process, and to avoid any arbitrary arrests of President Morsy and his supporters. 

John Kerry, July 6

The only solution to the current impasse is for all parties to work together peacefully to address the many legitimate concerns and needs of the people and to ensure Egypt has a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the millions of Egyptians who have taken to the streets to demand a better future. Lasting stability in Egypt will only be achieved through a transparent and inclusive democratic process with participation from all sides and all political parties. This process must also ensure that the rights of all Egyptian men and women are protected, including the right to peaceful assembly, due process, and free and fair trials in civilian courts.

The fact that democracy promotion is part of the US’ diplomatic rhetoric but actually low on the list of US priorities in Egypt -- and indeed anywhere -- is so blindingly obvious I’m embarrassed to restate the fact. The disingenuousness of our foreign policy is one of the reasons behind anti-US sentiment, although fomenting anti-Americanism is also a recurring, effective populist move here. 

US officials have largely let pass the abuses of Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the Morsi government, and the current army-backed government, in a rush to be on good working terms. The new Egyptian government has repeatedly ignored US criticism or exhortations, knowing we are not willing to damage our strategic relationship over niceties like human rights abuses. We are caught again and again mouthing principle and practicing expediency. 

There are two common misperceptions in Egypt vis-a-vis the United States. One is an overestimation of its power: because the US is powerful, it is assumed to be all-powerful. The other delusion is that the US cares enough about Egypt to actively take sides in its political struggles -- whereas all it cares about is that those struggles are resolved and a winner it can deal with emerges expeditiously. 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, March 2009:

Secretary Clinton: I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family. So I hope to see him often here in Egypt and in the United States.

Question: How do you view the presidency in Egypt, the future of the presidency in Egypt?

Clinton: That’s for the people of Egypt to decide. That is a very important issue that really is up to Egyptians.

Which meant then, as it does now: We’re going to wait and see if anyone can wrestle power from him. In which case we’ll get on board -- err, we’ll candidly discuss the challenges ahead on the path to democracy -- with that guy.

Qatar's ambitions and American universities

I just published an investigation into American universities in Qatar in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The piece is behind a subscription wall, but here is the intro: 

Sixty years ago, Doha was little more than a trading post along a barren coast. Today the capital of Qatar is a giant construction site, its building frenzy a testament to the tiny Persian Gulf emirate's outsized ambitions and resources.

Under the emir, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani—and now his son Tamim, who took over in June—Qatar has become a regional power broker and a deep-pocketed patron of culture, science, and education. Doha's curving seaside promenade boasts an Islamic-art museum designed by I.M. Pei. The city is building a new airport, an elevated train line, and air-conditioned stadiums to play host to the 2022 World Cup in the simmering summer heat.

As another part of its bid to make Qatar a global player, the al-Thani family has recruited an important ally: American higher education. On 2,500 acres on the edge of the desert here, the ruling family has built Education City, a collection of modern buildings, each home to a branch of a well-known university, including Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, and Northwestern. Those institutions are crucial to the emirate's goal of becoming "a modern society with a world-class education system at its heart," writes Sheikh Abdulla bin Ali al-Thani, who directs several of the higher-education ventures, in an email.

Yet some observers wonder if Education City, like many other attention-grabbing ventures here, is intended to do little more than bolster Qatar's international "brand." While professors say they are free to discuss sensitive topics in the classroom, outside the luxurious walls of the campus, speech is censored and political activities largely banned. Sometimes overzealous customs agents hold up shipments of books to the campus. Security authorities have even detained a foreign researcher who asked discomfiting questions.

Allen Fromherz, a historian who taught at Qatar University, which is not part of Education City, believes that the emirate's welcoming of foreign universities is intended to introduce only limited change. In his bookQatar: A Modern History, he says the emirate cultivates an image of modernity and openness but that Qatari society is still largely tribal, with power concentrated in the hands of a very few.

"How do you transform into a nation without also transforming the traditional, monarchical, patriarchal system?" he asks.

As the small but natural-gas-rich country emerges onto the world's stage, this and other questions are unavoidable: Are the American universities actors in the country's future or merely props? Can they teach students to think critically about the contradictions and changes in Qatar while under the patronage of its ruling family?

Look who's talking

Can Iran and the US reach a nuclear deal in the coming months, one that preserves Iran's enrichment program yet satisfies the US's sanctions regimen against the Islamic Republic? It is possible, but the pressure for the current negotiations between Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif to fail is immense, and comes from multiple domestic actors in both countries, as well as from American allies in the Middle East.

Obama's biggest stumbling block domestically is Congress, and the myriad lobbying groups opposed to a negotiated solution with Iran as long it remans an Islamic Republic. There are some Iranian associations (like the former terrorist organization MEK), but most of the pressure comes from Israel advocacy organizations like AIPAC, along with neoconservative think tanks such as the FDD or AEI. These groups - except for AIPAC - cannot really push Obama, but they can and have been pushing Congress. Republicans, especially, want to claim credit for sanctions bringing the Iranians to the UN with all this talk of cooperation and hints of nuclear concessions - but then, the issue arises of who is willing to say: "the sanctions have worked, let's talk concessions" instead of "Iran is bleeding white financially, tighten the screws and go for broke." And procedurally, this spider's web - as the International Crisis Group calls it - of sanctions cannot just be overridden by the President. Already, the Senate is mulling whether or not to enact even more sanctions, and this is no bluff. This is a concerted effort to pull Obama away from diplomacy and send Rouhani back empty-handed.

There are also other competing interests on the US side: Israel and the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia. All are united by their fear and animus towards Iran's regional ambitions.  

 

Netanyahu warned the UN of the Iranian nuclear duck peril. 

Netanyahu warned the UN of the Iranian nuclear duck peril. 

It is hard to tell if PM Netanyahu is bluffing about war to extract maximum concessions from both the US and Iran, or if he will only accept Iran's unconditional surrender. In any event, Israel will not go it alone in Iran - there are too many dispersed, hardened targets over distance to strike, unlike in Iraq and Syria. If Israel really does want to set the program back, its leaders would not risk taking action without the US's participation - this is why these generals and former spymasters keep painting talk of a unilateral attack as madness, because the risk of retaliation and international censure is too great. Concerns about state-sponsored terrorism and support for Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, or Islamic Jihad are also present in this debate. But the Nuclear Question is the overriding issue.

Even though he has been crying wolf for years, Netanyahu is not stupid enough to think he can go it alone on Iran. What he is now doing, partly, is hoping that he can regain the initiative in Israeli domestic politics over his Iran critics by castigating anything Obama and Rouhani do to bring down barriers between the two countries. There is a big difference between what the Prime Minister's Office and the Israeli military-intelligence community want on Iran, because the latter sees Netanyahu as a bull in a china shop making the case for military action harder than it needs to be. Israel does not want to lose its unique strategic deterrent in the region. And it needs the US to prevent that from happening. A deal that leaves Iran wiggle room for a nuclear weapons capability is unacceptable, because even that - in the Israeli view - balances the equation between the two countries, emboldening Iran. Netanyahu sees Syria as a test-run for Iran: will the US go all in - increasingly unlikely - or will it give "advantage" to Assad, Putin, and Khameini by supporting a difficult to enforce WMD search and seizure?

The Saudi royal family remains very apprehensive about any deals with Iran as well, in part because of a similar calculus. As with Israel, Iran is a country which a much larger land area and population than them. Iran's leaders have called for their deposal and been linked to terrorist attacks on them. Saudi Arabia worries about Iranian instigations in its Eastern Province and in Bahrain, specifically. Aside from these ideological differences, the Saudis do not want to see a nuclear-weapons capable Iran because that could negate the Kingdom's qualitative military advantage over Iran, given that Iran's military is running on aging American arms and some newer Russo-Chinese equipment while the Saudis have the run of General Dynamics, Dassault, and BAE's catalogs. Geopolitically, the Kingdom is playing for keeps in Syria - they are making unhappy noises about the CW deal that tabled an American air strike, which they had been lobbying very heavily for. Rapprochement with Iran that holds out the prospect of a negotiated solution for Assad would diminish Saudi influence in postwar Syria, and is not welcome because the Saudis have long sought to bring that country closer to Riyadh.

Returning to the US-Iranian dynamic, the language barrier is immense - in the sense that both powers talk past each other (supervised enrichment versus no enrichment), and both are afraid of giving something and gaining nothing. Yet not a decade ago, Iran was helpful on Afghanistan - the pre-Operation Enduring Freedom period saw the best cooperation among the two countries' officials in years. But the Bush Administration's 2002 "Axis of Evil" speech deeply embarrassed Iranian moderates urging reconciliation. More significantly, American mistakes in Iraq emboldened the Iranian military, which saw an opportunity to compete against the clerical establishment for postwar influence - remember that some of the returning Iraqi clerics and parliamentarians, including PM Nouri al-Maliki and the founder of the Badr Organization, the late Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, spent years in exile in Iran - by arming militias. 

Surprisingly, one of the least-cited reasons by Western critics opposing detente with Iran is that Secretary Kerry should not be sitting across a table from people who green-lit the transfer of weapons used to kill American soldiers between 2003 and 2011. Of course, such critics would have a very weak leg to stand in the historical context: Nixon went to China and opened detente with the USSR while weapons supplied by these two countries had  been used to kill thousands of American servicemen in Vietnam and Korea. But US critics of talking to the Soviets simply could not beat the people who felt talk was necessary to avoid WWIII. Whereas, because of US actions against Iran, because the Islamic Republic is not so vital to US interests, because there is nothing so concrete to cooperate on as anti-fascism, and because the Iranian Hostage Crisis is within living memory (no such event defined the Chinese or Russian Revolutions for Americans), a working relationship has been much harder to sell in either nation. 

Iran sees itself as encircled by US bases and allies, has undergone two foreign-backed regime changes - during WWII, to remove the then pro-German Shah, and more famously in 1953. Westerners then trained SAVAK, the pre-Islamist secret police force, and were always the most visible supporters of the Shah from the 1950s to the 1980s. Iran's current leaders also do not forget what happened in the Iran-Iraq War when the US (with the USSR) sided with Saddam Hussein - even going so far as to give Iraq intelligence that the CIA knew would be used to help carry out chemical warfare. Since 2000, there have been cyber attacks, assassinations of nuclear scientists, and even more sanctions - all of which are either directly tied to the US, or ascribed to its Israeli allies. To shift course is difficult not simply because of public opinion, but because so much of the establishment cut its teeth on anti-Americanism and still sincerely feels the US wishes to strangle them by pursuing regime change. After all, dual containment of Iran and Iraq in the 1990s only came to an end with the invasion of Iraq. Though the current crisis in Iran is also the result of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's fiscal policies and economic authoritarianism, there is the expectation that Iran will be allowed back into the world energy and banking community in exchange for nuclear concessions.

In Iran, the domestic calculus for whether a deal should be reached or not is more opaque, but two very important groups of people constrain Rouhani's hand. Rouhani can count on the support of the reformist press - some of those "Green Movement" outlets not shuttered since 2008, and some past notables like former President KhatamiIran's international traders, and most of the Majles. Iranian social media has lit up in support of Rouhani's moves -- Netanyahu's clumsy, condescending attempt to speak directly to the Iranian public has backfired in these same forums. The hardliners, however, count players like the former nuclear negotiator and war hero Saeed Jalili, and the veteran diplomat Ali Velayati. If Rouhani is seen to be underperforming abroad, Khameini will want to have a back-up plan - in the form of pronounced skepticism about trusting the US's sincerity - to wash his hands of the president's work, and will use one of the president's rivals to lead the denunciation campaign. 

Khameini, who puts his own credibility on the line by advancing talks, wants to reserve the option to blame the new president and the US if the talks tank - he does not want to get caught out by the US by offering concessions for no concrete gains. So he states that he approves Rouhani's efforts but finds some aspects of them troublesome. When the Grand Ayatollah talked about flexibility, he might as well be referring to his own position within Iran's domestic scene. 

As for the IRGC, it remains the single most powerful institution in the country, because of its military reputation, forays into politics, and its revenue streams from the factories and trading companies it runs. Corrupt officials constitute the economic foil to sanctions-lifting. Rouhani received a relatively triumphant welcome back home - but not wholly triumphant, as the security services allowed hawkish protestors to jeer at and egg his motorcade. It has used sympathetic media to castigate Rouhani, and is making a big play rhetorically by opposing the idea of ending the regime's "Death to America" rallies. It sees itself as the guardian of a revolution - ossified as that revolutionary is in 2013 - and welcomes opportunities to confront the US and Israel in Iraq and the Levant, and to keep Assad in power despite exasperation with his military performance.

Press statements, editorials, and tweets are the tea leaves by which such factional scorekeeping can be discerned: which editorials are the most vituperative about conciliation, which reports offer praise of Obama, which date and place a speech praising or criticizing Rouhani was given at. Rouhani certainly has a strong position - perhaps stronger than Obama's, because no one has Obama's back while Rouhani has his powers conferred upon him in these talks by Khameini. The downside of that is that Rouhani has more to lose if he slips up, because without getting demonstrable relief from the sanctions, he risks having his mandate to negotiate revoked by Khameini. Obama is in a position to offer much, and has made major steps by allowing Secretary of State Kerry to negotiate directly with Foreign Minister Zarif, but will feel constrained by so many past failures in his and other administrations to take bigger risks.

 

Egypt and its patrons
Egypt's new patrons? A poster in Cairo thanks the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE -- and Russia.  

Egypt's new patrons? A poster in Cairo thanks the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE -- and Russia.  

Why does Egypt receive between $1.3 and $1.5 billion of US aid annually?

"Because of Israel" is the most common answer to that question. Certainly, that is driving much of the American political wrangling over whether aid should be suspended. The New York Times reports that during the back-and-forth among the US and its allies leading up to Morsi's ouster, Israeli officials argued against cuts, and told the military not to put stock in US threats to cut off aid. The Israelis, like the US, greatly prefer the Egyptian security forces to be in charge of the country. Whatever, the depredations of Mubarak, the Brotherhood, or the counterrevolution, Egypt is too valuable for any American leader to risk "losing."

But though the Muslim Brotherhood signaled it might be less hostile to Hamas or Iran than Mubarak was, in practice the former president did little to change existing policies. Under Morsi's short presidency, the Egyptians even stepped up the destruction of smuggling tunnels into the coastal strip (moreover, the Egyptians were reportedly instrumental in negotiating an end to Operation Pillar of Cloud last winter).

Both Israel and Egypt have many shared interests in the Sinai, especially as the security situation deteriorates. Though Egyptian pressure on Gaza is massively increasing now, it was never seriously in jeopardy under the Brotherhood given that the terrorists and criminal gangs in the Sinai were going after both the SCAF- and Brotherhood-led Egyptian state, and it served Morsi little to champion the Palestinian cause while in office.

The massive corporate investment in Egyptian or Saudi defense expenditures certainly contributes to Congressional deliberations against aid cuts. And while one might examine the head of President Obama, and whether his reluctance to "take sides" really suggests a desire to reduce a US commitment to Egypt, the fact that the aid has not yet been publicly cut off suggests that Washington has tacitly taken a side: that of the military's, guarantor of the status quo.

It was, in fact, not just the Israelis telling General Sisi et al. to pay no mind to the US law that requires all aid to be suspended to a country if a coup takes place there. It was King Abdullah telling the Egyptian generals that the Kingdom would make up for any cutoffs in economic or military aid - the latter, almost assuredly in the form of American-made weapons in Riyadh's possession.

Riyadh's role is extremely important in all of this, especially with respect to Iran's containment. As the CNAS think tank noted in February 2011, Egypt's strategic importance in the wider region has nothing to do with the current deployment of US forces in the country, where the only fully staffed America military station is a US Navy medical center. It instead has to do with the nightmare scenario that would threaten the US's interests in the Persian Gulf: the sudden collapse of any one of the Gulf monarchies that host the radar sites, listening posts, airfields, and weapon emplacements pointing at Iran:

"The United States has no military bases of its own in Egypt. Its headquarters for directing air and ground troops in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq, are in Qatar. Stockpiles of tanks, ammunition, fuel, spare parts and other war materiel are warehoused in Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. U.S. missile batteries are deployed along the Persian Gulf's west coast. The U.S. Navy's regional headquarters is in Bahrain.

But in contingencies or crises, American forces have depended heavily on Egyptian facilities built with U.S. aid to U.S. specifications to accommodate U.S. forces as they move from the United States and Europe to Africa or westward across Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the Persian Gulf. American nuclear powered aircraft carriers, whose jets are playing a major role in Afghanistan, rely critically on their expedited use of the Suez Canal, giving them easy access to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf."

Jane's Defence Weekly presented an analysis of commercial satellite imagery compiled between 2011 and 2012 to illustrate the expansion of US, UK, and GCC "conventional combat capabilities" in the Persian Gulf. The analysis highlighted the most salient points of this cooperation, which all ultimately leads back over that waterway and the Saudi desert to Egypt's own airspace and port facilities.

Meanwhile, the suggestion that the failure of the Brotherhood's political experiment in Egypt may be necessary for the House of Saud's survival is not farfetched. Though security concerns largely determine American actions, for the Saudis, there is also the matter of not wanting competition from the transnational Brotherhood as a mass Islamist movement.

While in years past, the Saudis supported the Brotherhood in Egypt - against Nasser, primarily, whose pan-Arabism and meddling in Yemen during the Cold War threatened the House of Saud's shaky legitimacy. But then the Brothers' messaging and aspirations began to appeal to dissidents within the Kingdom, as did other rival Islamist precepts, threatening absolute monarchy with the prospect of replacement. In recent years, top Saudi officials have made extremely negative remarks about the Brotherhood, most notably the late Crown Prince Nayef. Last month, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal fired a Kuwaiti preacher from his Al Resalah channel for having pro-Brotherhood leanings. As a Foreign Policy article recently noted about Saudi efforts to arm anti-Assad Syrian militias, "Saudi Arabia does not only despise the Muslim Brothers, but political Islamic movements and mass politics in general, which it sees as a threat to its model of absolute patrimonial monarchy."

Conspiring against the truth

My latest post for the Latitude blog of the New York Times takes a look at the truly mind-boggling conspiracy theories being woven by the security services and an eager-to-please press in Egypt today. 

On Tuesday, a front-page story of the state-owned newspaper Al Ahram was titled: “A New Conspiracy to Shake Stability Involving Politicians, Journalists and Businessmen.” Citing anonymous “security sources” the article purported to reveal the details of an agreement to “divide Egypt” allegedly struck between Khairat el-Shater, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson, which involved helping 300 armed fighters enter the country from Gaza. It also claimed that the police foiled a plan to take over government buildings and declare an independent state in southern Egypt (“with the previous promise of recognition from the United States and some European countries”). The piece concluded by promising that charges would soon be brought against the unnamed conspirators.
As I argue in the piece, the point here is to create a black-is-white, up-is-down alternate reality in which the military is fighting a US/Muslim Brotherhood alliance and in which the police and state security are national heroes rather than reviled criminals. In crafting this narrative, Fox News has played a surprising supporting role: segments on Obama's supposed support for the Muslim Brotherhood have been subtitled into Arabic and broadcast here. 

The more serious concern with these conspiracy theories is that they are being used to prepare the ground for a wave of further prosecutions, and this time not just of Islamists. The charge of تخابر takhaabir ("sharing intelligence" with foreign powers) which has been brought against Morsi but also against April 6 activists is so vague as to be applicable to almost any contact between an Egyptian and a foreigner.  

Sameh Naguib, a member of Egypt's Revolutionary Socialists, has written an in-depth analysis of the "foreign plot" phenomenon: 

The objective of linking the Islamic movement and its resistance (whether armed or unarmed) to foreign conspiracies is not onlto demonise thIslamistanothers whoppose the counter-revolution. It is also a promotional campaign falsely claiming the army’s patriotism and its leader’s symbolic link to Gamal Abdel Nasser and the era of national liberation.Unfortunately many Liberals and those formerly on the Left are contributing to this campaign. An example is this statement from the Egyptian Communist Partythat refers to “Islamic terrorism and its links to the Zionist American alliance that aims to break-up and dismantle our nation and the region with the aim of redrawing the map within the framework of the Greater Middle East project that places the United States as the world leader, Israel the strongest nation in the region and weakenthstatof Egypt. Threst of thArab nationwoulsimply be tentacleof the Turkish-Israeli American alliance.” The statement also refers to the necessity of “standing by the police and the army in its war against terrorist religious fascism” etc. It is as though it were a battle of national liberation and Sisi had just nationalised the Suez Canal. 
The Socialist Popular Alliance Party suggests the same regarding “the conspiracy” and ends one of its recent statements with “working together to confront the Zionist American plot.” All the above is in stark contrast to events on the ground. The main backers of Sisi’s bloody campaign are the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates on the one hand and Israel on the other. In other words, the main centres of counter-revolution in the Arab worlds over the last six decades and the staunch backers of the Mubarak regime.

 

In Syria, America Loses if Either Side Wins

You know those nightmarish images of chemical attack victims in Syria you saw (or if you are like me, glimpsed and then avoided looking at) last week? It should be our goal to keep that shit coming, says some Washington think tank jerk in the New York Times Op-ed pages:

... a decisive outcome for either side would be unacceptable for the United States. An Iranian-backed restoration of the Assad regime would increase Iran’s power and status across the entire Middle East, while a victory by the extremist-dominated rebels would inaugurate another wave of Al Qaeda terrorism.

There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw.

By tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.

That this is now the best option is unfortunate, indeed tragic, but favoring it is not a cruel imposition on the people of Syria, because a great majority of them are facing exactly the same predicament.

[...]

Maintaining a stalemate should be America’s objective. And the only possible method for achieving this is to arm the rebels when it seems that Mr. Assad’s forces are ascendant and to stop supplying the rebels if they actually seem to be winning.

This view has been circulating in US policy circles for months. This guy just comes out and says it. 

Notes on the US presidential debate

I just caught up with last night’s US presidential debate — arguably the one that would be the most interesting for this audience, especially as the first segment was devoted to the Middle East. The one thing that struck me most is how limited the debate was, how frequently the bromides came, how few exciting ideas either of the candidates had to offer in what has to be one of the most exciting times in recent Middle Eastern history.

The differences between the candidates was on the surface mostly slim, largely due to Mitt Romney’s “pivot to the center” ending up being a “I agree with Barack Obama but can implement his policies better” line. Of course, as Obama pointed out again and again rather effectively, Romney changes his take all the time. (Juan Cole has a list of Middle East-related flip-flops or Etch-a-Sketch moments here

I think Obama clearly did better in this debate on substance, in part because of some Romney unforced errors:

  • Iran does not need Syria for access to the sea
  • Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some kind of council that organized the Syrian opposition? This is probably the biggest indictment to date of the failure of the, erm, Syrian National Council.
  • Romney wants to arrest Mahmoud Ahmedinejad for genocide. He said in the debate: “I would make sure that Ahmadinejad would be indicted for genocide. His words amount to genocide.” And then his campaign spokesman doubles down and suggests the UN can arrest Ahmedinejad. For something he has not done.

According to Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, successfully indicting Ahmadinejad would be more than just a symbolic victory.

“I think it would remove probably one of the most anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, pro-genocide members of that regime in Tehran,” he told TPM after the debate. As to whether he would actually be arrested: “I’m hoping that he would be indicted and that action would unfold following that indictment. Absolutely.”

Others in the Romney camp seemed a little unsure of how the indictment would play out. John Sununu, a top Romney surrogate, told TPM after the debate that the hypothetical charges wouldn’t even be about Israel, but about the violent repression of his own people.

“No, no, I thought he meant in terms of what’s going on internally in Iran,” Sununu said. “I think that’s what the reference was to.”

So Ahmedinejad is guilty of pre-cog genocide in Israel and genocide against his own people. Wow.

Other aspects of the debate were grimly familiar, notably he unprompted, almost incongruous, pledges of loyalty and undying love to Israel from Obama. But there was little of substance new or frankly interesting. The debate on Syria was surreal on the Romney side, and cautious on the Obama side (although I thought he made a good case for a cautious approach and the difficulty of finding “good Syrians” to back. ) Most striking was that both candidates reject direct US military intervention and Romney rejects a no-fly zone enforced by US planes.

On Egypt, Obama’s intervention was telling of the malaise in US policy circles over Egypt, which is perhaps deeper than that of Libya (although the Libyan intervention’s monstrous lovechild, the disintegration of Mali, made a front-row appearance). Romney raised Egypt having a “Muslim Brotherhood president” as a problem in itself. Obama talked tough about the points on which Egypt policy is focused:

  1. The rights of women and religious minorities;
  2. Cooperation on counter-terrorism;
  3. The “red line” of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty;
  4. Economic development.

Aside from the last point he kept talking of Egypt in terms of US applying pressure to obtain the results it wants. It definitely frames Egypt as a “problem” more than anything else.

The delisting of the MEK

Years of hard work by the MEK, their lobbyists, parts of the Israel lobby (esp. when it overlaps with the anti-Iran lobby and the neocons) have finally borne fruit. A rather strange, cultish organization that once bombed Iran's parliament is no longer on the US list of designated terrorist organizations. It comes at the time of the most concerted effort to put pressure on the Iranian republican regime since its creation, and with much talk of war as background chatter.

There's an aspect of the delisting of the MEK that may have some merit: the refugee issue, i.e. where resident of Camp Ashraf might end up because they're no longer welcome in Iraq (as they were under Saddam Hussein, and ironically aren't under the Iran-leaning Iraqi government that the US overthrow of Saddam made possible.) But it shouldn't overshadow the many other reasons the MEK — a fundamentalist guerrilla movement, essentially — will now make a handy recipient of US (and other) funding should things continue to heat up with Iran. Or indeed the story of how this was possible: perhaps not so much because geostrategic calculations as intense lobbying and a lot of money.

Selected links: 

  • On US decision to delist MEK | The Back Channel
  • MEK decision: multimillion-dollar campaign led to removal from terror list | World news | guardian.co.uk
  • US takes Iranian MEK group off terror list - FT.com
  • Iranian Group M.E.K. Wins Removal From U.S. Terrorist List - NYTimes.com
  • By Delisting the MEK, the Obama Administration is Taking the Moral and Strategic Bankruptcy of America’s Iran Policy to a New Low « The Race for Iran
  • MEI Editor's Blog: The MEK is Delisted
  •  

    The Bush White House Was Deaf to 9/11 Warnings

    The Bush White House Was Deaf to 9/11 Warnings - NYTimes.com

    As I've always suspected, heard from officials in the know — a must-read by Kurt Eichenwald in NYT on the Bush administration's scandalous negligence of the Bin Laden threat because it was obsessed with Saddam:

    The direct warnings to Mr. Bush about the possibility of a Qaeda attack began in the spring of 2001. By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that “a group presently in the United States” was planning a terrorist operation. Weeks later, on June 22, the daily brief reported that Qaeda strikes could be “imminent,” although intelligence suggested the time frame was flexible.

    But some in the administration considered the warning to be just bluster. An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat. Intelligence officials, these sources said, protested that the idea of Bin Laden, an Islamic fundamentalist, conspiring with Mr. Hussein, an Iraqi secularist, was ridiculous, but the neoconservatives’ suspicions were nevertheless carrying the day.

    In response, the C.I.A. prepared an analysis that all but pleaded with the White House to accept that the danger from Bin Laden was real.

    “The U.S. is not the target of a disinformation campaign by Usama Bin Laden,” the daily brief of June 29 read, using the government’s transliteration of Bin Laden’s first name. Going on for more than a page, the document recited much of the evidence, including an interview that month with a Middle Eastern journalist in which Bin Laden aides warned of a coming attack, as well as competitive pressures that the terrorist leader was feeling, given the number of Islamists being recruited for the separatist Russian region of Chechnya.

    And the C.I.A. repeated the warnings in the briefs that followed. Operatives connected to Bin Laden, one reported on June 29, expected the planned near-term attacks to have “dramatic consequences,” including major casualties. On July 1, the brief stated that the operation had been delayed, but “will occur soon.” Some of the briefs again reminded Mr. Bush that the attack timing was flexible, and that, despite any perceived delay, the planned assault was on track.

    Yet, the White House failed to take significant action. Officials at the Counterterrorism Center of the C.I.A. grew apoplectic. On July 9, at a meeting of the counterterrorism group, one official suggested that the staff put in for a transfer so that somebody else would be responsible when the attack took place, two people who were there told me in interviews. The suggestion was batted down, they said, because there would be no time to train anyone else.

    And then people laugh when you suggest Bush should have been impeached. In fact, it's him and his senior team (Rice, Cheney, Hadley, Rumsfeld etc.) who should be held to account. It's still not too late, 11 years after the attacks.