Saturday, January 28, 2012

Libya: The Lesson Of Bani Walid

In post-Gaddafi Libya, the dream of a stable central government is fading. Militias are filling the gap.
In the hilly desert scrub north of the town of Bani Walid, Libya's revolutionaries have been fighting again. Militia units who thought the war ended last year with the death of Gaddafi are back in uniform. Their battered pickup trucks mounting anti-aircraft guns are parked again astride the highway north of the town, 90 miles south of Tripoli.
Many of these men participated in the rebel assault on the town, one of Gaddafi's last redoubts, when it fell in October. Now they are back again, this time as pro-government forces. Sort of. "We are not part of the National Army," says Hatir Said Suleiman, a bearded fighter from Tobruk, hunched deep into his green combat jacket against the freezing wind that rolls in off the desert. "We are the National Guard."
The distinction is important: "National Guard" is a rather grand name for what is actually a hodgepodge of volunteers from militias across the country, sporting as many styles of camouflage jackets as home towns. The National Guard is an alliance with no certain leader, an amalgamation of elements from hundreds of militias, held together because they share a common goal: the eradication of the people who terrorized them for forty-two years, then bombed, rocketed, tortured, and raped for another eight months. Think Paris Commune, or Cromwell's New Model Army.
By contrast, the government-appointed National Army is small. In the eyes of the militiamen, its reputation is tainted by its officers, many of whom served under Gaddafi. In Bani Walid it has been conspicuous by its absence.
Contrary to many of the headlines, the battle in Bani Walid, which the pro-revolutionary forces now seem to have decided in their favor, was not part of a pro-Gaddafi uprising. Green flags did not, as was first reported, sprout from the rooftops. The issue was the arrest of war crimes suspects. Since the end of last year's fighting, Bani Walid has become a refuge for the waifs and strays of the former Gaddafi administration who are on the war crimes lists of other cities. A pro-government unit in the town had begun to arrest them when on Monday their base was attacked by a local clan. Four soldiers were killed, the rest fled, and the suspects were set free.
Now the National Guard wants them back. "We want to go home, we all want to go home," says National Guard fighter Osman El Hadi, himself from Beni Walid. "But first we need to finish this."
This minor uprising, in short, is less significant in itself than for what it says about the disarray of the post-revolutionary administration in Tripoli. Right now, power on the national level is exercised by the National Transitional Council (NTC). But this latest crisis has revealed once again that the NTC is, at best, a bit player.
The real power in Libya remains dispersed among the country's bewildering array of grassroots military formations. Most are grouped around town or city military councils; Tripoli is divided into 11 district militias. The last time anyone counted, Misrata had 172, ranging from ten-man outfits to the 500-strong Halbus Brigade, with a wartime strength of 17,000. That figure has since plummeted, with thousands returning to their jobs.
Of these, the strongest groups are from the cities of Zintan and Misrata. Both have dispatched their commanders to Tripoli to take part in the new government. The defense minister, Usama al-Juwali, is a businessman from Zintan. Fawzi Abdul Aal, a bespectacled Misratan lawyer, is interior minister. It was their militias that did the most to win the war against Gaddafi, and the appointments were recognition of the fact. (On Wednesday, al-Juwali showed up in Bani Walid, where he tried to negotiate an end to the fighting.)
Encouragingly, neither man is a warlord in the traditional sense: Both are answerable to their city councils, and to parallel military councils. It's not quite democracy, to be sure. But they still enjoy a legitimacy beyond that of the ruling National Transitional Council, which is self-appointed.
The NTC has been doing little to help itself. Formed in the eastern city of Benghazi in the heat of battle, it has morphed into an organization both secretive and inefficient. It refuses to make public its membership list, or its meetings, or its voting records. Nor will it open the books on what is being done with the country's swelling oil revenues. On top of everything else, earlier this month it bungled the drafting of legislation for a planned June national election, thus feeding the paranoia of Libyans who believe that many of its members are Gaddafi loyalists trying to manipulate the revolution to their own ends.
It has no press office. Or rather, it does, but as one of its former press officers recently explained to an online journalism forum, a decision was taken that the NTC would have no press officers, so the office is unmanned and the door locked. There is no phone.
Instead, what the Libyan people get are occasional edicts delivered from upon high, such as the bewildering pronouncement, in reaction to anti-NTC protests across the country, that the economy and oil ministries would be moved to Benghazi and the finance ministry to Misrata, a recipe for bureaucratic confusion. "Don't think that the NTC is a single cohesive body," said a Libyan who spent years in exile in the UK. "It is chaos. Chaos. It is everybody against everybody else."
Meanwhile protests continue across the country accusing the NTC of a lack of transparency, and of ineptitude. Earlier this month the NTC's headquarters in Bengahzi was stormed by demonstrators; the NTC's vice chairman resigned after being roughed up by a crowd.
The militias, meanwhile, are gaining in strength. And the Zintanis and the Misratans have formed a de facto alliance to bolster their position against the NTC. Their rising power was marked by the recent appoint of a Misratan, Yussef al-Manguish, as army chief of staff.
But it is the two militia leaders who remain the men to watch in Libya. Al-Juwali, the Zintani, is a soft-spoken man whose calm demeanor belies his resolve. It was Zintanis who captured Saif al Islam, Gaddafi's son, last fall, thus prompting al-Juwaili's appointment to the NTC. (Saif remains in the custody of the militia to this day). Al-Juwali's men also control the international airport in Tripoli, an important potential source of funds.
In November, the Zintanis made headlines when they prevented Abdulhakim Belhaj, the former Al Qaeda-sympathizer who now heads the Tripoli Military Council, from entering the airport, accusing him of trying to travel on a fake passport. (He was allowed to travel only after interim Prime Minister Mustafa Abdul Jalil personally intervened to smooth out the dispute.) The month after that, the Zintanis at the airport became embroiled in a firefight with the bodyguard of yet another leading light of the NTC.
Both Zintan and Misrata have transformed themselves into virtual statelets, with heavy security forces that control all movements in and out. Misrata's "gate" boasts thirty white poles flying the flags of the world, giving you the feeling of entering another country. The city's bewildering array of local militias operate on a duty roster that allows their members to keep up with their day jobs when they're not carrying guns. The city and its operational zone, which includes East Tripoli and stretches as far as the inland city of Sirte (a distance of about 300 miles), is to all intents and purposes outside NTC control. Abdul Aal, the Misratan militia leader now serving on the NTC, is regarded as urbane and smart, and enjoys the unreserved loyalty of the cityfolk.
Yet there are reasons to doubt the durability of the Zintan-Misrata alliance as a basis for national stability. In both Zintan and Misrata there are problems with rogue units; the flip side of this citizens' army is that each element is free to do its own thing. At one point a Misratan unit decided to attack rebels in Tripoli when they refused to hand over a wanted man. Elders in Misrata bemoan the attack, saying that it has fractured relations between the groups involved and that the militia should have awaited some judicial mechanism for the arrest of the individual.
The situation is not hopeless. These militias could potentially serve as useful building blocks for the new Libyan state. The easiest way would be to give each group wide-ranging responsibility for its own turf. But so far that is not happening. The appointment of the two militia leaders to their posts in the NTC were concessions to reality, not part of any wider process of coalition-building.
And there is still considerable sympathy for the idea of a unitary Libyan state -- especially among the revolutionaries who hail from the relatively sophisticated towns of the coast.
Hitching a lift back from the Beni Walid front line to Tripoli in a car full of National Guard is instructive. Two of the young men are from Bani Walid itself, the third from Benghazi. None of them takes the NTC particularly seriously. They dismiss current NTC head Jalil as neither charismatic nor decisive, though they do regard him as relatively trustworthy.
Going down the list of other leaders, they agree that the shedding by the NTC of former Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril and former Finance and Oil Minister Ali Tarhuni, men who did so much to muster international support in the war, was a mistake. Libyans did not much warm to them when in office, but the NTC seems a faceless beast without them.
We pass a National Army road block at Tarhuna, and there are polite hellos to the soldiers in newly pressed beige uniforms from my companions. They tell me that that the National Army specializes in keeping out of the real action, in case their uniforms are spoiled. While the militias don't like the army or the NTC, they are willing -- at least for the moment -- to follow orders from Juwali and his boss, commander in chief Sansoun Mansour. (He spent most of the war in a Gaddafi jail.)
The man they mistrust most of all, however, is Abdel Hakim Belhaj, figurehead of the Islamists.
Contrary to much feverish reporting, jihadism is not really the threat in Libya. Despite backing from Qatar, the intelligent, charismatic Belhaj, often cited for his past sympathies with al Qaeda, remains a minor player. This is not to say that Libya is a bastion of liberal thought. Talk to the many flourishing women's groups, who are making impressive inroads into politics, and they will tell you how Libya's male-dominated pro-democracy political outlook contrasts with a deep social conservatism.
"We are Islam," a young fighter in Misrata once told me. "Why do we need an Islamic Party? It would be like America having an America Party."
Meanwhile, Washington, its fingers badly burned in Afghanistan and Iraq, is taking a back seat in postwar Libya, leaving the British and, more discreetly, the French and Qataris, as the leading international players.
Many of the American diplomats are veterans of a decade of blunders and misguided theories in Baghdad and Kabul, and are now more chastened. Their challenge, as they try to push and prod the NTC in the right direction, is to figure out what this direction should be.
But the problems, like the one at Bani Walid, are the NTC's to solve. Thus far, it is too befuddled and besieged to indulge in such forward planning. It will be an achievement if it survives until the promised summer elections. If it delays those elections, or is seen as tweaking the voting process, its days may be numbered. As one Benghazi militiaman recently told me: "With this government we will wait and see. If it is no good, well, we know how to do revolution."
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 28/01/2012
-Christopher Stephen reported from the Libyan war for The Guardian and is the author of Judgement Day: The Trial of Slobodan Milosevic, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York), 2005

Friday, January 27, 2012

As Tensions Rise, Egypt Bars Exit Of Six Americans


Hillary Rodham Clinton is required to certify that Egypt is taking steps toward democracy before aid can be released.
Building tensions between the United States and Egypt flashed into the open Thursday when Cairo confirmed that it had barred at least a half-dozen Americans from leaving the country and the Obama administration threatened explicitly to withhold its annual aid to the Egyptian military.
The travel ban came to light on Thursday after the International Republican Institute, an American-backed democracy-building group, disclosed that the Egyptian authorities had stopped its Egypt director, Sam LaHood, at the Cairo airport on Saturday before he could board a flight to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
Mr. LaHood is the son of Ray LaHood, the secretary of transportation and a former Republican congressman from Illinois. He is one of six Americans working for the Republican Institute or its sister organization, the National Democratic Institute, whom Egypt has blocked from leaving as part of a politically charged criminal investigation into their activities.
Just a day before Mr. LaHood was detained temporarily, President Obama had warned Egypt’s leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, that this year’s American military aid hinged on satisfying new Congressional legislation requiring that Egypt’s military government take tangible steps toward democracy, said three people briefed on the conversation.
Mr. Obama referred specifically to the criminal inquiry into several democracy-building groups with foreign financing, including the Republican Institute, the people who were briefed said, and he made clear that Egypt had not fulfilled the Congressional requirements, but Field Marshal Tantawi did not seem to believe him.
Then, after the travel ban on the Americans became public on Thursday, the administration made the warning public as well. “It is the prerogative of Congress to say that our future military aid is going to be conditioned on a democratic transition,” Michael H. Posner, an assistant secretary of state responsible for human rights issues, said at a previously scheduled press conference in Cairo on Thursday.
Raids last month on nongovernmental organizations, along with respect for basic rights, he said, are “very much a part of that package.” He said repeatedly that the military aid was now at stake and that the treatment of the American-backed groups had set off a Congressional outcry. “Obviously any action that creates tension with our government makes the whole package more difficult.”
State Department officials said that it was the first time in three decades that American military aid to Egypt was at risk. That aid, $1.3 billion a year, has always been sacrosanct as the price the United States pays to preserve Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Though members of Congress have talked this year of imposing conditions on American aid to Egypt, the Obama administration had previously opposed the idea.
The White House negotiated intensely to allow the president the option of waiving the conditions, if necessary, in the name of national security. Now Hillary Rodham Clinton, the secretary of state, is required to certify that Egypt is making democratic progress — carrying out “policies to protect freedom of expression, association and religion, and due process of law” — before releasing the aid this fiscal year.
Representative Frank R. Wolf, a Republican from Virginia who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, said the Egyptian government continued to flout American efforts and to undermine democratic rights. “This is out of control,” Mr. Wolf said on Thursday. “If the administration follows the law, there’s no way they can continue the aid.”
The issue has already become subject of “an active debate” within the administration, one senior State Department official said. “I hesitate to say that we have clear assurances of what’s going to happen,” the official said. “I think they understand the importance we attach to this issue and the value actually for Egypt on moving ahead on these questions.”
A tug of war between Washington and Cairo over American aid for Egyptian human rights and democracy-building groups goes back to the era of former President Hosni Mubarak. To maintain control over organizations that might pose potential challenges to his government, Mr. Mubarak required nonprofit groups to obtain licenses, which were almost never issued.
Instead, the generals have echoed the Mubarak government’s refrain that any unrest was the work of “foreign hands.” Often, the military-led government has pointed specifically at Washington, suggesting that the United States was financing Egyptian groups behind the frequent turmoil in the streets.
Last spring, the military-led government initiated a formal criminal investigation into foreign financing of nonprofit groups. Then, in December, investigators accompanied by squads of heavily armed riot police officers raided as many as seven rights groups, including four backed by American government funds. The raids were heavily criticized by American officials, lawmakers and advocacy groups.
Sam LaHood said in an interview that his organization had cooperated with the inquiry, which is being conducted by judges at a court in Cairo. At the request of investigators, he had already signed a statement on a copy of his passport pledging to be available for his next interrogation. He said that 17 members of the group’s staff had been interrogated and three called back for a second session.
“It is not like we were ducking them,” he said.
In Cairo, officials of the Justice Ministry and the public prosecutor’s office could not be reached for comment. Amr Roshdy, a spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, said the travel restrictions were “a purely judicial process,” imposed at the request of the attorney general. Told that the furor over the handling of the investigations could affect American aid to Egypt, he paused and then said, “Really?”
Since the fiscal year began in October, the United States has not provided any money, though portions of last year’s budget are still in the pipeline. The administration has budgeted an additional $250 million in economic assistance, but that is not subject to the certification. All aid, however, is subject to a separate requirement that Egypt abide by the peace treaty with Israel. Officials have said that the current military funds will dry up by March.
The administration has welcomed many recent steps in Egypt, including the seating of a new Parliament this week after elections that were broadly viewed as free and fair, and the partial lifting of a longstanding emergency law. But the raids against the nonprofit groups have become politically explosive.
In addition to Mr. LaHood, four other employees from the Republican Institute, including two Americans, had been barred from travel. Officials of the National Democratic Institute said that six of its employees had been banned, including three Americans.
Lorne W. Craner, of the Republican Institute, noted that the Egyptian government had promised senior American officials that they would close the investigation and return documents, computers and cash that were seized.
“Here we are all these weeks later and all these assurances later, and things are getting worse,” Mr. Craner said in Washington.
Mr. LaHood said that he wondered if he might be brought up on trial. “It is ludicrous, but the whole thing is ludicrous,” he said.
-This report was published in The New York Times on 27/01/2012
-Steven Lee Myers reported from Washington, and David D. Kirkpatrick from Cairo

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Is Regime Change In Iran The Only solution?

By Alireza Nader
As the prospects for negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program dim, and an anxious American public contemplates the grim prospect of military action, attention has turned again to the prospect of changing Iran's regime. But is U.S. regime change in Iran, whether through sanctions or direct action, really a viable prospect?
Reuel Marc Gerecht and Mark Dubowitz have argued that the United States should pursue sanctions that lead to regime change. According to them, through sanctions, "a democratic counterrevolution in Persia might be reborn. A democratic Iran might keep the bomb that Khamenei built. But the U.S., Israel, Europe, and probably most of the Arab world would likely live with it without that much fear." The attraction of removing the Islamic Republic may be obvious. Sanctions may slow down Iran's nuclear drive but most likely will not roll back the program. Military strikes would do damage but are hardly guaranteed to destroy major facilities such as the recently opened Qom enrichment plant, buried beneath 300 feet of rock. For many, only a change of the regime would diminish the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.
What is often missing from this debate is that only Iranians can achieve any meaningful regime change. The United States can no longer effect political change in Iran, as it did with the overthrow of Iran's popularly elected government in 1953. Sanctions against the central bank, for example, may create widespread economic panic, and shake the population's trust in the Iranian government. Sanctions could even increase Iranians' dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs to such an extent that they are more prone to go into the streets in protest. However, Iranians are not going to overthrow their rulers due to economic hardships alone, and certainly not at the behest of the United States.
The sources of Iranian angst vary, and range from the miserable state of the economy to government mismanagement and corruption. The most crucial factor, however, is the regime's lack of legitimacy due to its overall treatment of the Iranian population. The 2009 presidential election shattered the faith of millions of Iranians in electoral politics. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards' consolidation of power, and their violent response to opponents, showed Iranians that the regime -- which often refers to Khamenei as an "absolute" ruler only beholden to God's authority -- no longer views popular will as a pillar of the political system.
And the regime's opponents are not merely the fashionable and largely secular men and women who inhabit northern Tehran. Even members of the Revolutionary Guards are disillusioned with Khamenei's authoritarian style of rule. The former Guards navy chief, Hossein Alaei, recently wrote a letter to a major Iranian newspaper implicitly comparing Khamenei's behavior to the former Shah, who once treated the aspirations of his people with contempt. Disillusionment with the regime exists throughout Iran's political and military circles. It often lies beneath the surface, but it is very real, and potentially quite powerful.
Only Iranians can achieve regime change, should they seek it. Iran has the ingredients for a more democratic political system, much more so than many of its neighbors. It has a large and well educated middle class, and a suppressed but still alive civil society.
Sanctions will not directly lead to the regime's downfall, but they can create the space and time necessary for the United States to forestall Iran's nuclear weapons program while a better political system emerges in Iran. The United States should not pursue sanctions with the intent of changing the regime, but to contain it in order to give Iranians a chance to effect change themselves. At the same time, the United States should increasingly focus on human rights abuses and lack of legitimate elections as the regime faces parliamentary and presidential elections.
Unfortunately, sanctions could also hurt the same Iranians who are opposed to the government. The Green Movement, supported by Iran's middle class, will bear the brunt of sanctions. Elements of the Revolutionary Guards, involved in Iran's illicit trade, may actually benefit from sanctions in the short run. However, no section of Iranian society or the political system is likely to be spared in the long run given the magnitude of sanctions against the central bank. Iran as a whole may suffer, but the effort to contain the Iranian regime will not be cost free for the United States or the Iranian people.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 26/01/2011
-Alireza Nader, coauthor of Coping with a Nuclearizing Iran (RAND, 2011), is a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that improves policy and decision-making through research and analysis

Egypt And The Islamists

By Ahmed Souaiaia
Woman voter in Egypt; photo courtesy of Ashraf Amra/APA
Woman voter in Egypt; photo courtesy of Ashraf Amra/APA
Two days before the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution that eventually forced out Hosni Mubarak, the newly elected members of the Egyptian parliament convened for the first time and endorseda member of the Muslim Brotherhood as speaker. Saad al-Katatni was elected on Monday receiving 399 votes, 80 percent of the 498 votes cast.
The 59-year-old botany professor was elected to the current parliament as the representative from the province of Minya, which is south of Cairo. He is not new to politics. Katatni is a seasoned legislator who served as the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc between 2005 and 2010, when organization candidates ran as independents because the Islamist movement was not allowed to field candidates directly.
The Egyptian results, as in similar elections in Tunisia, Palestine, Iraq, and Turkey, suggest that in any fair and transparent elections in the Islamic world, Islamist parties and their affiliates can easily win at least 40 percent of the votes. In fact, in the case of Egypt, Islamist parties together won over 77 percent of the seats. These results can be used as predictors of future elections in other Arab and Islamic countries in the area. Arguably, if fair elections were held in Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, Islamists are likely to win 40 percent or more of the votes. The question, then, is no longer whether Islamists can win a majority in elections, but which strain of Islamism and by how much.
New Coalition, New Constitution
By all accounts, the elections in Egypt were unprecedented. More than 30 million people voted (over 60 percent of the eligible voters), and more than ten million of them voted for the party of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party (al-Hurriyyawa-‘l-adala). This margin of victory allows that party to govern without needing to forma coalition with any of the major parties. The party won 127 seats through the party list and 108 individual seats for a total of 235 seats. The parliament consists of 498 elected members, 10 appointed, for a total of 508 seats. They only need about 20 seats to establish a governing majority.Therefore, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has many options to form a majority government.
The FJP could enter into a coalition with al-Nur, the Salafist party that came second after winning 24 percent of the votes, a result that surprised most observers. The FJP could also merge with another Islamist party, the Center Party (al-Wasat) that won 10 seats, and attract some of the independent members. Alternatively, it could enter into a governing coalition with both Islamist parties, a move that would likely heighten the anxiety of secular politicians. The so-called liberal parties combined won a mere 15 percent of the seats, led by the oldest party, the Delegation Party (al-Wafd), which came in third after securing 38 seats. However, despite the weak performance of al-Wafd, the FJP might be inclined to enter into a coalition with it instead of one or both of the Islamist parties. While the FJP is ideologically closer to other Islamist parties, an alliance with the DP will lessen western anxiety over a possible Islamists’ takeover. Additionally, an alliance with a centrist liberal party like the DP might help marginalize the Salafists who are suspected of benefiting from Saudi moral and financial support. In other words, the fear of increased Saudi interference in Egyptian internal affairs makes the FJP and DP allies.
Regardless of the coalition choices the FJP may make in the next few days, this body of elected representatives will be tested as it faces a host of problems during this transition period. Importantly, the leaders of the parliament must appoint a committee consisting of 100 members tasked with drafting the new constitution. The FJP will face pressure from the right as well as from the left.
The ultraconservative al-Nur party, whose supporters have generally shunned democracy as un-Islamic, will likely push for the inclusion of explicit language about the shari`ah being the main source of law in the new constitution. Liberal politicians and western governments will advocate for a constitution that favors secularism. A likely compromise will enshrine shari`ah as a main source of law. Short of that, and if leaders of the parliament cannot reach consensus on this and other critical issues, the military would probably intervene—a scenario favored by a number of military leaders.
Against Autocracy
One thing is certain however: the next Egyptian president will not be allowed to consolidate power the way Mubarak and his predecessors did in the past. The Muslim Brotherhood implicitly endorsed such a plan. Immediately after the fall of the regime, the party announced that it will not field a presidential candidate. The move reassured the Egyptian public and foreign governments that Islamists are not interested in a power grab. That movedid not mean that Islamists are disinterested in the position. Instead, they want to reform it.
Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood favors a ceremonial presidential position and a strong government under the oversight of the parliament. Ultimately, this divested-power model might benefit Egyptian society, which has suffered under authoritarian rule since independence. It may also promote the emergence of autonomous civil society institutions, which is necessary for accountable government.
The most important achievement of these elections, however, remains the embrace of the electoral paradigm for the determination of political legitimacy. Indeed, the ban on Islamists in past turned them into political martyrs. By rejecting democracy, the Salafists attempted to discredit the representative governance model. Now, the participation of more than one Islamist group in local and national elections takes religious absolutism out of the equation and empowers the people to determine their political leaders and institutions. That in and of itself is a step in the right direction.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy In Focus on 26/01/2012
-Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Ahmed Souaiaia teaches at the University of Iowa. He is the author of the book, Contesting Justice. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated

Supremely Irrelevant

Iran tried to take advantage of the Arab Spring. It failed, miserably.
One year ago today, Egyptians took to the streets to demand the removal of Hosni Mubarak's three-decade-old dictatorship. As they waved flags and chanted for the fall of the regime, another ruler 1,200 miles to the east was calculating how to use their act of courage for his own profit. On Feb. 4, at the height of the protests in Tahrir Square, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took the stage in Tehran to deliver his assessment of the revolutionary moment unfolding in Cairo.
Speaking partly in Arabic, Khamenei described events in Egypt as an "Islamic awakening" inspired by Iran's own 1979 revolution. The speech was blasted out to thousands of Egyptians via text message, and Khamenei even claimed on his webpage to have personally inspired the pro-democracy demonstrations, comparing them to "the yell that the Iranian nation let out against America and against global arrogance and tyranny."
Khamenei was not alone in predicting that the Arab Spring would provide Iran an opportunity to expand its influence across the Middle East. Early on, some Washington commentators fretted that he may be right. Writing in Foreign Affairs, for example, Michael Scott Doran, a former official in President George W. Bush's administration, cautioned that the "resistance bloc" led by Tehran was "poised to pounce, jackal-like, on the wounded states of the region." And, in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset as recently as October that he doubted the "high hopes that blossomed in the Arab Spring" would be realized, arguing that Iran would manipulate events to expand its influence.
But even at the time, Khamenei's assertions fell on deaf ears among the hundreds of thousands risking their lives in Tahrir Square. When asked about Khamenei's boastful claims, one Tahrir protester mocked: "Egyptians were not inspired by Iran. Rather, the Egyptian people are inspiring the world." This proved a much more astute observation than the supreme leader's. As Foreign Policy's own Marc Lynch documents in his compelling new book, The Arab Uprising, the 2011 revolts in Egypt and elsewhere were inspired by decades-old grievances against corrupt regimes and the mutually reinforcing demonstration effects of simultaneous movements rising up across the Arab world. Iran had nothing to do with it.
The reaction in Tahrir Square represented a sign of things to come. Iran has tried to exploit events, but the winds of political change have not blown in Tehran's favor.
When Mubarak fell, Iran's leaders moved out with swagger. They saw one pivotal U.S. ally gone, and perceived an opportunity to exploit unrest to undermine other pro-Western regimes, especially Saudi Arabia. They sought to develop contacts with Islamists in Egypt and Libya, expand ties to opposition movements in Yemen, and capitalize on the indigenous Shiite protests in Bahrain. And Iran's leaders seemed confident that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, Tehran's state ally in the Middle East, was immune from the populist wave because of its militant stance toward Israel and the United States.
One year later, however, it is hard to find evidence that Iran has benefited from the Arab uprisings. In fact, Iran's regional position has taken a big hit. With the partial exception of Yemen, Tehran has struggled to build new networks of influence with emerging Islamist actors. Meanwhile, Assad's regime has been thoroughly delegitimized, expelled from the Arab League, and is wobbling in the face of nationwide protests. This, in turn, has created considerable anxiety for Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that constitutes Iran's chief non-state ally.
The perception of Iranian meddling has also decimated Tehran's "soft power" appeal across the Arab world. Surveys conducted in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates by Zogby International show Iran's reputation in free fall since the Arab Spring began. Just a few years ago, Iran enjoyed a strong majority of support among the populations of all these countries; as of July 2011, Iran had a net unfavorable rating in every country but Lebanon.
This is not just a temporary setback for Iran, but a sea change that could deeply undermine its regional ambitions. To be sure, the trajectory of the Arab Spring remains uncertain, and rising sectarian tensions and political backsliding in some countries may provide opportunities for Tehran to cause mischief. But several underlying dynamics suggest that Iran's struggles will continue.
As Arab publics increasingly look to their own governments to represent their interests, Iran's ability to leverage regional discontent to influence the Arab street will continue to wane. Moreover, emerging political actors vying for influence and votes in an increasingly populist landscape, including both secular parties and Sunni Arab Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, will be keen to brandish their Arab nationalist credentials and will be reluctant to forge close associations with Tehran. Within hours of Mubarak's fall, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood's spokesman was already taking pains to emphasize that "Egypt is not Iran. Egypt can build its own model of democracy according to its culture and Islamic preference."
The Iranian regime's brutal response to its own 2009 protest movement puts further limits on its influence over the Arab Spring. The regime's refusal to respect universal rights, while claiming to back democratic movements across the Middle East, is irrefutable evidence of hypocrisy. And Iran's continued support for the Syrian regime's bloody tactics -- at the very moment that Assad faces growing pressure from fellow Arab states and Turkey to end the violence and step aside -- only magnifies this double standard.
Classic balance of power dynamics have also triggered extensive pushback from Tehran's regional rivals. Iran's nuclear ambitions, combined with widespread concerns of Iranian-backed subversion, have motivated unprecedented arms purchases and security cooperation among the Arab Gulf states. Exaggerated perceptions of Iranian meddling also produced the ill-advised Saudi intervention into Bahrain last March. In the face of perceived Iranian threats, Saudi Arabia and its allies are likely to continue to circle the wagons.
Lastly, as the prospects of Assad's political survival in Syria continue to dim, so do Iran's hopes for regional supremacy. For years, Iran's close alliance with Syria has provided it with a platform to exert influence in the Arab world, and a base from which to funnel support to militant Lebanese and Palestinian organizations threatening Israel. But with the pro-democracy movement in Syria persisting in the face of severe repression and Assad's regime facing international estrangement, Iran's most critical alliance is increasingly tenuous.
If Assad falls, Iran may attempt to compensate by doubling down in Iraq. But the susceptibility of Iraq's Shiite-led government to Iranian hegemony is widely exaggerated and Iraq cannot replace Syria as a gateway to the Levant. Iraqi nationalism is profound and local distrust of Iran, a country Iraq waged the bloodiest war of the late twentieth century against, runs deep. Iraq also desires a long-term partnership with the United States and improved relations with its Arab neighbors -- goals that are incompatible with Iranian domination.
One year after the Egyptian revolution began, Khamenei's hopes -- and Western analysts' fears -- have not materialized, and are not likely to. Although it has been fashionable to describe Iran's growing power in the Middle East, actual events suggest the opposite. Iran's economy is reeling under sanctions, and the regime's nuclear activities and saber-rattling increasingly mark it as a pariah state. And as the Arab Spring marches on, Iran will find itself falling further behind.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 25/01/2012
-Colin H. Kahl is associate professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. From January 2009 to December 2011, he was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

An Alternative To War With Iran

By Richard Silverstein
Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and the road not taken.
Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and the road not taken
Relations between Iran and the West, fraught with tension and conflict for decades, have in the past few months reached a fever pitch. There is talk of war on a daily basis from both sides. Hundreds of millions, if not billions, have been spent both to fuel the Iranian missile and nuclear program and the counter-measures taken by the West to frustrate it. Leaders on both sides have worked themselves into paroxysms of rage regarding the alleged homicidal intensions of the other side.
The situation is volatile and the danger of war real. But the premise of the Western approach to Iran has dangerous shortcomings.
There is a common conception of Western policy as based on a two-pronged, carrot and stick approach: one a diplomatic track and the other a military threat. There is certainly the guise of a real diplomatic track. Both sides have talked at various times of the need for negotiations, and for very short periods there have been talks. Recently, Iran expressed willingness to begin a new round of talks with its opponents about its nuclear program.
But by all appearances, the Western approach is solely designed to achieve Iranian capitulation to Western demands that it dismantle its nuclear research program. It is not designed as an open-ended negotiation in which both sides are open to compromise to achieve a mutually agreed-on objective. The United States and Israel are little interested in acknowledging Iran’s perceived interests or compromising over its nuclear program so that each side will end up with some of its key interests satisfied.
Bad Faith
To study the efficacy of the diplomatic track, let’s look at its history. In 2003, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami made his famous offer to discontinue Iran’s nuclear program in return for the full normalization of its relations with the United States, including an end to sanctions. In the run-up to the Iraq War and in the context of the Bush-Cheney “stand tough” approach to the Islamist militancy of that era, the United States not only spurned the offer, it soundly berated the Swiss diplomat representing U.S. interests in Iran for having the temerity to pass the proposal along.
Barack Obama came into office with some vague notions of pursuing talks with Iran, criticizing the unhelpful threats of the previous administration. Western powers, however, only held talks with Iran for a mere three weeks. At those talks, the West again presented demands on a more or less take-it-or-leave-it basis; this was again not a negotiation of equals. It was one side communicating to the other what it expected of them to end the impasse. That’s why the talks ended almost before they began.
In recent years, Brazil and Turkey successfully negotiated a compromise with Iran involving the transfer of the country’s enriched uranium to a third country. But the Obama administration dismissed the plan and wasn’t even willing to pursue further negotiations about it.
If the diplomatic track was truly what Western officials have claimed it to be, there would be a more flexible and less destructive sanctions regime in place. Even officials in the U.S. government told The Washington Post that U.S. policy toward Iran, including the sanctions plan, is designed to achieve regime change, rather than policy change. The administration later attempted to deny that its officials had made such a claim, but it’s no wonder that Iran understands the U.S. approach as unilateral and categorical, rather than open-ended.
One-Track Policy
So there is not a two-track policy regarding Iran. There is instead a one-track policy with two facets. On the one hand, there is a program of sanctions and covert war designed to intimidate and bloody Iran into capitulation. But if that doesn’t work (and it surely cannot), there is a military option designed to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. It’s no surprise, then, that the Iranians see their enemies closing in on them like a vise. An enemy who believes he has no options left is very dangerous. He is likely to lash out in unforeseen ways. Such desperation is precisely what could fuel not just a bilateral military conflict, but a full-scale regional war.
There is another misconception about Western policy. The liberals among us talk about a “military strike” as an option of last resort. The more clear-eyed, like the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Riedel, talk of a potential war against Iran. Neither is precisely right. As Israeli journalists have pointed out, there already is a war under way against Iran. It is bought and paid for by a $400 million allocation by the Bush administration in 2007. It has funded all the tools in the Mossad arsenal that were used to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program and foment general unrest inside the country.
Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan outlined Israel’s thinking in a Wikileaks cable in which he told the State Department’s Nicholas Burns that Israel planned to sow general discord inside Iran by acts of sabotage perpetrated by domestic minority groups like the Sunnis and Kurds:
Dagan said that more should be done to foment regime change in Iran, possibly with the support of student democracy movements, and ethnic groups (e.g., Azeris, Kurds, Baluchs) opposed to the ruling regime…Iran’s minorities are “raising their heads, and are tempted to resort to violence.”
Dagan urged more attention on regime change, asserting that more could be done to develop the identities of ethnic minorities in Iran. He said he was sure that Israel and the U.S. could “change the ruling regime in Iran, and its attitude towards backing terror regimes.” He added, “We could also get them to delay their nuclear project. Iran could become a normal state.”
Though the cable doesn’t mention the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK), the Mossad clearly views it as a potent force with an extensive internal network within the country, whose muscle could be exploited to further Israeli interests.
Mark Perry recently published an expose of one particular Mossad project, a false flag operation in which it recruited the leader of Jundallah, a Sunni terrorist group operating in Iran, by posing as NATO and CIA agents. When the Bush administration discovered the nature of the program, it was furious. But ultimately it decided it had other fish to fry and would not make a major stink about the danger the duplicitous operation posed to U.S. agents in the region.
Such Israeli tactics suggest that Israel pursues its own interests with little or no regard for how its behavior will impact friend or foe. For example, it utilizes the MEK as a partner in many of its terror operations inside Iran, even though U.S. State Department officially designates the MEK as a terror group.
This, of course, doesn’t stop the MEK and its well-paid domestic allies in the United States from pursuing an aggressive campaign to delist it as a terror group. Millions of dollars have been spent to further this goal, including enlisting prominent figures on both the Democratic and Republican sides to shill for delisting. The MEK appears to believe that terrorist activities in which it may be engaged inside Iran will not have an impact on its delisting by the United States. This is all the more reason for journalists in Israel and outside to make known its cooperation with the Mossad, so that the U.S. government can make an informed judgment about whether or not the MEK has renounced terrorism as it claims.
Some analysts have called this a black ops campaign or covert war. Whatever we call it, it is war by another means. If the United States is serious about seeking a diplomatic solution with Iran, then why would it both encourage and fund such a powerful campaign of terror inside Iran?
The campaign has included the Stuxnet computer worm, most certainly developed by the Israel Defense Force’s cyber warfare Unit 8200 with some U.S. assistance. Israeli security correspondents and a former Israeli minister reported to me that the Mossad and the MEK have jointly engaged in numerous terror operations that have killed five nuclear scientists and resulted in an almost fatal attack on a sixth. There have been crashes of Revolutionary Guard military planes and two more recent explosions: one that wiped out a missile base and killed the Iranian Revolutionary Guard general directing the entire national missile program, and another that sabotaged an Isfahan uranium enrichment facility.
So how much credence should Iran’s leaders put in the claim that the West is pursuing a diplomatic track? If there is no such real option for negotiation to resolve this conflict, is there any other prospect than war?
An Alternative to War
After following Iranian-Western relations for years, I believe the diplomatic track is a mirage and that the sanctions regime, which the West has pursued without success for 30 years, will not gain Iran’s capitulation. That leaves only two options: war, or Western impotence in the face of Iran’s implacable determination to pursue a nuclear option. Either option is bad, but the first is far worse than the second.
The fallout from a war with Iran has been widely discussed. Iran might mine the Straits of Hormuz and activate its shore-based defenses to repel U.S. naval forces. The price of oil would skyrocket, imperiling a global economy already teetering on the brink of recession or worse. Iranian allies in Lebanon, Gaza, and Syria could make mayhem for Israel and the United States alike. Iran could activate elements inside Afghanistan and Iraq to make life even more miserable there than it already is.
Since the United States doesn’t appear prepared for a real negotiation with Iran regarding its nuclear program, there is only one real approach short of war: containment. The United States adopted this approach during the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Though it was never optimal, considering the dysfunction in the relationship between the superpowers, containment worked reasonably well until the Soviet collapse in 1989.
As former Defense Department Undersecretary Colin Kahl argues in his latest Foreign Affairs article, the United States already has the assets in place in the region to pursue a policy of containment: 40,000 troops are stationed in the Gulf, with 90,000 more in Afghanistan.  There are two carrier task forces deployed in the Gulf, and various allies view Iran with deep suspicion. They could be a local bulwark against any possible Iranian aspirations that threaten the regional status quo.
Containment still isn’t an optimal approach, but it’s the least bad one considering the current dysfunction characterizing relations between Iran and the West. In the future, Iran may turn to a reformist, more democratic government that might approach these issues differently. Or the climate in the West may change so that it would be willing to seriously engage with Iran on a similar basis to the Khatami 2003 proposals. But given the almost lunatic tone of the Republican presidential debates concerning Iran, and the fact that Barack Obama appears convinced that he must maintain impeccable national security credentials to protect his right flank, the United States is unlikely to adopt a more reasonable, pragmatic approach to Iran.
Under the circumstances, containment is the only remaining option that doesn’t lead to regional war, stalemate, and deeper dysfunction.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy In Focus on 25/01/2011
-Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Richard Silverstein writes Tikun Olam, a blog that explores the Israeli-Arab conflict, covers Israeli national security issues, and promotes Israeli democracy

Egypt's Uprising Continues To Be A Work In Progress

The next few months will determine how democratic the new Egypt will be. But there is already new vitality in the country's public life.
By Issandr El Amrani
There is a dramatic video made by Egyptian activists that has been circulating online lately. In it, actors play the roles of some of the major protagonists of the Egyptian uprising and its aftermath: Hosni Mubarak, the military, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, the liberals, and of course the courageous activists who took to the streets a year ago and toppled a "Pharaoh".
The narrative shows the military turning the political players against each other: the Salafist against the activist, the Muslim Brother against the Salafist, the liberal against the Islamists and so on. Later, the politicians do nothing as the military beats the activist: they are too busy with ballot boxes, and finish by fighting each other for an empty throne. The video ends with the words, "All of you sold Egypt."
For some of the revolutionaries who participated in last year's uprising, which began a year ago today, this serves as an accurate depiction of their betrayal at the hands of, well, everybody. The Muslim Brotherhood, which did not even back protests last January, has won nearly half the seats in parliament and is set to be the key negotiator of the military's handover of power to a civilian government by next July.
Since last October, over 100 protestors have been killed in clashes with army and police, even as elections were under way, and very few politicians joined the protestors' call for an immediate end to the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Even as the anniversary of January 25 was being prepared and the same revolutionaries called for a "second revolution," the leading political parties were calling for a calm celebration of the revolution and trust in parliament to continue to transition process.
Meanwhile, the SCAF added insult to (grievous) injury by announcing it would distribute a "January 25 medallion" to every wounded revolutionary and every soldier drafted into military service since the uprising.
So is this what the Egyptian revolution of 2011 has come to, a deal with Islamists and the military to stabilise the country, repress democracy activists and keep the country going pretty much as it used to, except with a more religious and overtly militaristic veneer?
Not so fast. Implicit in the video is not only disappointment with Egypt's elites, but with its people. In recent months I have often heard the complaint that Egyptians are all too easily manipulated by the military and Islamist politicians, and too eager for a return to normality. It may be true to some extent - in autocracies and democracies alike public opinion is manipulated - but the bottom line of this worldview is a dead-end idea: that the people betrayed the revolution. It is an idea with no future because if not for the people, in whose name are the revolutionaries speaking?
In Egypt and other countries, I have heard the same thing from ordinary people. Most are too busy to take part in activism, because they must work to earn bread for their families. Joining in protests is too risky for them, because they risk getting arrested or hospitalised, and they are afraid - not for themselves as much as about what their families would do without them. And they are also willing to give the politicians a chance to negotiate a better future for them, having voted, many of them for the first time in their lives.
This is a bitter pill to swallow for the revolutionaries, whose comrades languish in military prisons, in hospitals. They have buried friends and paid a high price for their courage. It is little wonder they feel betrayed.
And yet they have been right to keep protesting, to keep spreading the truth about the murders committed by the military and police. Almost every time protestors have taken to the street they have managed to extract concessions from the SCAF and political parties alike. Note, for instance, the recent pledge by the Muslim Brotherhood's General Guide, Mohammed Badie, that the military will be held accountable for its mistakes, or SCAF's release of nearly 2,000 prisoners, many of whom had been put through the military justice system the protestors oppose.
The reality is that the generals, even as they scheme to expand their powers, are on the defensive in a way that is unprecedented in over 60 years of military rule.
The military, the backbone of the regime since 1952, may retain for some time to come both formal and informal influence in post-Mubarak Egypt. The next few months will be crucial to determine exactly how far that influence, not unusual in countries that are attempting a transition to democracy, will go.
But Egypt has also gained a new vitality in its civil society and in its political life: look not only at the many political parties that have been created (including, for the first time in Egypt's history, political parties based on a liberal, social-democratic platform), but at the myriad youth groups, single-issue advocacy movements, and other organisations that have made a discourse on human rights and democracy mainstream. This is another Egyptian first.
There is little doubt that there will be trials and tribulations ahead. The military and the security services will not relinquish power easily. Islamists in parliament may want to implement agendas that are not just conservative, but retrograde. Egypt's economy stands on the brink of a disaster that could discredit the revolution.
But a year later, the Egyptian revolution is real. Its anniversary an occasion to celebrate, to mourn, to express anger at the missed opportunities and mistakes of the last 12 months and to remind those who cling to power and those who have only just reached it that the Egyptian people have expressed a genuine desire for change, for accountability, and for social justice.
As Egyptian activists like to say, the revolution continues.
 -This commentary was published in the National on 25/01/2012
–Issandr El Amrani is a writer and analyst based in Cairo. He blogs