Saturday, May 12, 2012

Terrorist Fishing in the Yemen

The Obama administration has doubled down on the use of drones to go after bad guys. How long until the blowback comes?


Last month, according to news accounts, U.S. President Barack Obama agreed to widen the scope of drone attacks carried out against al Qaeda members in Yemen. Previously, strikes targeted only known individuals; henceforth, the CIA and the U.S. military's Joint Special Operations Command will be permitted to target people whose patterns of behavior make them high-value targets. Many counterterrorism and Yemen experts think that the White House is opening up the gates of hell. They might be right, but I wish the alternatives they suggest were more convincing.
The White House's decision is important not only in itself but as an indication of how Obama wishes to fight the war on terror. The president inherited the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; whatever he did there was largely reactive. Americans are no longer fighting in Iraq, however, and they have begun to draw down in Afghanistan. The locus of terrorism has also moved on, to Yemen, Somalia, and the Maghreb. These are the sites where Obama is free to choose his tactics -- and make his mark. His strategy is complex; in places like Yemen and Nigeria, the Obama administration is trying to improve the ability of embattled governments to deliver services and is training militaries to stand up to terrorists. But drone warfare has moved to the very center of the White House's strategy. Just as George W. Bush may be recalled as the president who tried to fight terrorism by waging war and removing tyrants, Obama may be recalled as the president who sought to rout terrorists through targeted killing from the sky.
Obama has authorized not only a new policy but a new global infrastructure for drone warfare. Last year the Washington Post reported that the United States is "assembling a constellation of secret drone bases" in Ethiopia, the Seychelles, Djibouti, and the Arabian Peninsula. After years of refusing to acknowledge the secret effort, the White House has decided to openly make the argument for drones. On April 30, White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan delivered a speech in which he argued that targeted strikes from remote aircraft satisfy the criteria of just war and constitute a "wise" choice because they allow for immediate response, eliminate American casualties, and minimize -- virtually to zero, according to Brennan though not to a multitude of skeptics -- collateral damage to civilians. Brennan went into unusual detail in explaining the painstaking standards applied to each targeting decision.
If drones are the future of counterterrorism, Yemen is the laboratory. The country looks like a much more propitious setting for the effort than Pakistan, where Obama has also stepped up the pace of attacks. The Pakistani security establishment treats the Taliban not as a threat but as a strategic asset, while the current, admittedly extremely tenuous government of Yemen views al Qaeda as a threat to its sovereignty. Over the last year, as the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh disintegrated in the face of massive public demonstrations, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as the local affiliate is known, occupied a swath of territory in southern Yemen. The new interim government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi has welcomed the U.S. effort and used its own air force to supplement American drones. And while in Pakistan al Qaeda and Taliban forces mingle with the local population, AQAP, by staking out its own territory, has exposed itself to aerial attack. In the last few weeks, drone strikes have killed Mohammed Saeed al-Umda, fourth on Yemen's most-wanted list, and Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, AQAP's external operations director.
As military solutions go, drones really are hard to beat. As Brennan noted, "Countries typically don't want foreign soldiers in their cities and towns." By contrast, "there is the precision of targeted strikes." The drone thus represents a lesson learned from the first generation of the war on terror: Precision limits popular backlash. But is that really true? By all accounts, drone strikes in Pakistan have become ever more accurate, but still inflame Pakistani public opinion almost as much as has the occasional incursion by U.S. or NATO forces. In March, Pakistan's parliament voted to prohibit such strikes altogether. That outrage, in turn, has made it almost impossible for the United States to achieve its long-term goals of helping Pakistan become a stable, civilian-run state. Short-term success has jeopardized the long-term goal -- though that price might still be worth paying.
That hasn't happened yet in Yemen. And perhaps it won't, so long as the drones hit al Qaeda terrorists rather than local insurgents, not to mention civilians. But that's a leap of faith. As Barbara Bodine, a former ambassador to Yemen, notes, "Right now we don't have a Pakistan-like reaction. But at first we didn't have that reaction with Pakistan either. This is something that builds. And folks in Yemen know what's going on in Pakistan. This will play into the broader narrative of the drones we use in Pakistan and Afghanistan." Another lesson learned from Afghanistan is that even a counterinsurgency effort designed to protect civilians and promote good government will provoke nationalist resistance. People on the ground will see the intervention as against them, not for them (which explains why, according to WikiLeaks cables, President Saleh publicly insisted that the Yemeni air force had launched the strikes). Counterinsurgency, which seemed so promising all of two or three years ago, now looks like an illusory, or at least oversold, solution to the war on terror. How long before we say the same of drones?
The answer, in both cases, is not to abandon the approach but to acknowledge its inevitable costs. There are no cost-free military solutions. The drone strikes that killed Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, two AQAP leaders, were well worth the effort; the same should be said of more recent attacks. But when does the cost exceed the value? Bodine said that she recently attended a conference at "an undisclosed location" in which this very question provoked furious debate among security officials. The White House, in fact, pushed back against a CIA request to set the same targeting rules in Yemen that it now operates under in Pakistan, where it is permitted to strike militants who pose a threat to U.S. forces whether or not they include a high-value target. So there is skepticism in high places, if not in the CIA or special operations forces. The new "pattern" rules may still be too broad.
The frequency of strikes is already much greater than most of us realize. A report by the Britain-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism counts 21 definite or possible drone strikes in Yemen over the last two months; a Yemeni government official has said that the United States has been launching an average of two strikes a day since mid-April. The danger of producing more militants than we kill in Yemen hardly seems hypothetical.
The danger, more broadly, is that the United States will fall in love with drones and thus that targeted strikes become the U.S. strategy rather than an element of it. Of course, that raises the question of what that larger strategy should be -- not only in Yemen but in the other places where al Qaeda seeks to exploit weak states to gain a territorial foothold. The answer, from most critics, is that the United States must not sacrifice the long term for the short term. Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert who blogs at the site Waq al-Waq, argues that the United States must accept "the really difficult work of diplomacy and counter-terrorism." The no-shortcut answer is capacity-building, democracy promotion, economic development. The only long-term solution to the al Qaeda exploitation of state failure is to cure state failure.
That's true, of course. But that may not be a fair criticism of the Obama administration, which has been pursuing just such a strategy since 2009, though it was derailed by the political turmoil and violence of the last year. Only in recent months have many military and civilian programs in Yemen been restored. Beyond that, however, what grounds do we have for putting any faith in such a strategy? Experience in Afghanistan, which in some ways Yemen strongly resembles, has not been encouraging. The appeal of precision airstrikes is magnified by the failure of the less lethal alternatives.
I'll devote next week's column to the question of what, if anything, the United States and other partners can do, and should do, to help the Yemenis help themselves -- and thus to put the drones in their proper place.
-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 11/05/2012
-James Traub is a fellow of the Center on International Cooperation

Elections And Instability In Algeria

By Wided  Khadraou

Self-immolation in Algeria
                                                                  Self-immolation in Algeria
Algeria’s instability claimed another self-immolation victim, Rechak Hamza, on April 29. Hamza set himself on fire in Jijel, in eastern Algeria, suffering third-degree burns. He was airlifted to a hospital in Constantine before succumbing to his injuries. His funeral was held on May 2.
Hamza was a 25-year old cigarette vendor working in the densely populated Moussa Village district of Jijel. He committed his desperate act following an altercation with local police, who forced him to dismantle his stand and only means of livelihood. For local residents, it was yet another instance of hogra — an Algerian term for the “contempt” of the ruled by the rulers. Hogra arrogantly condones the violence of a selected few against the many.
Violent protests broke out in Jijel once the news broke of Hamza’s death in Constantine. Police attempted to barricade Moussa Village to contain angry crowds of 1,000 or more people as youths marched on the provincial capital. Tensions in Jijel remain high, and a police inquiry into the incident is underway.
Algeria has seen hundreds of such self-immolations this year, including at least 60 in the coastal city of Doran alone. Yet unlike in neighboring Tunisia, these sparks have yet to set Algeria aflame. Many Algerians feel that the country already had its “Arab Spring” when Islamists won the first round of the national elections in 1991, leading to a fierce state crackdown and a civil war.
It’s not likely that the parliamentary elections on May 10 will resolve the deep divisions in Algerian society. Even before the announcement of the official results, the Islamist coalition began accusing the authories of election fraud. The Islamists are shown to be coming in a distant third, behind two pro-government parties. El Watan and other independent newspapers, citing country-wide disaffection, have expressed skepticism over the governmen’t final voter turn-out count.  The final report from international election monitors is not expected before July. Algerians may not wait that long before resuming their protests.
Bread before Ballots
The National Liberation Front (FLN) has ruled Algeria since 1962, surviving the massive riots in 1988, a decade-long civil war in the 1990s, and more recently the wave of revolutions in the region. Following an outbreak of protests in Algeria’s major cities last year, the government instituted a handful of unimpressive reforms, including a call for parliamentary elections on May 10.
Algerians may have other things on their minds. The prices of consumer goods have steadily increased since late February, leading many to accuse the government of manipulating food prices ahead of the general elections. The use of food prices for political leverage is not new in Algeria; analysts seem to be of two minds about their precise utility. The first camp believes that the government covertly drives food prices up by controlling the amount of produce available in the market, then exploiting the rising prices as an electoral issue. Another school of thought is that rising food prices create a distraction for citizens, leading them to abstain from the political process (and the opposition) by forcing them to worry about “le pain quotidien” (daily bread) instead of politics.
The opaqueness, corruption, and straightforward hogra of those in power make it difficult to fully unravel the level of political manipulation in food prices. But the basic fact remains that Algerian citizens end up footing the bill when the economy is used in the political struggle to maintain power.
Real Hogra
Abdelaziz Belkhadem, the secretary general of the FLN and personal representative of President Bouteflika since 2008, perfectly exemplifies the hogra in Algeria. Belkhadem is part of a rotating cast of elites in President Bouteflika’s cabinet who reshuffle themselves among ministries and roles to give the illusion of change. Belkhadem said in a conference on May 1 in the city of Boumerdes that the “multiparty and democratic system has not responded to the aspirations of the Algerian people,” citing the failure of political parties created since the “opening” of the political field in the late 1980s to create any alternative programs or offer social solutions. He continued by accusing certain parties in the opposition of promoting a false platform and unattainable reforms.
Algeria’s current political system, which is entirely dominated by the FLN, allows almost no room for any type of genuine democratic practice. Belkhadem’s comment, a disingenuous broadside from one of the country’s privileged elites, exemplifies how far the leadership has strayed from the masses.
Belkhadem’s suggestion that the FLN — the self-described “party of the mujahideen” — is the only party that cares about the interests of the nation is insulting to those who have witnessed the ongoing suppression of genuine popular appeals. Despite the “opening” of the political field and the broader regional upheavals, censorship on information in Algeria continues, so most of the population is forced to get domestic news from foreign new sources. ENTV (the state’s official television channel) all but blacklisted the opposition parties in the run-up to the elections. Silencing the opposition in every conceivable way supports the parody of the democratic system in Algeria.
Parliamentary Elections
Forty-four political parties, nearly half of which are brand new, and numerous independent candidates are vying to win the newly enlarged parliament’s 462 seats. Yet as Hadda Hazzam, a columnist for Algerian daily El-Fadjr, wrote, “The majority of the participating parties have neither platforms nor charismatic figures capable of promoting change or of creating a powerful opposition against the authorities.” Average citizens in Algeria are both overwhelmed with the number of unknown candidates and skeptical of the entire “democratic” process. The profusion of parties without tangible future plans, as well as a disconnect between the general populace and the leaders of the parties, all work in favor of ensuring the existing state of affairs and all of its associated fraud.
One of the differences between this election and previous elections is the delegation of some 200 international monitors. The delegation will remain in Algeria until June to observe the entire electoral procedure and produce a report expected in July. But even before election day they ran into problems as the authorities denied the EU mission’s access to the national voters registry. Patriots on Fire, one of the rare blogs on Algeria in English, opined, “Algerian rulers have missed another opportunity and are playing with fire.”
Still, the public’s present lack of interest and cynical attitude toward the politicians’ empty promises and rhetoric do not detract from the power they have to dismantle the status quo. Belkhadem did not neglect to urge young people “not [to] hear those who incite rebellion.” He continued, “I know there are gaps. But we must protect our country because it is inappropriate to go back to square one.”
A Missing Link
Algeria’s 50th year of independence is this July. It has been 50 years of manipulation and exploitation by the government. Algeria’s rulers may have evaded the first wave of regional revolution, but it would be a fatal mistake for them to think they are now in the clear. Only genuine democratic reform and a rollback of the hogra-based system can deter more extreme approaches to change in the future. Cosmetic changes to the political system will only strengthen the hand of anti-democratic radicals.
Algerians still do not identify with their leaders. According to El Watan, Algeria’s youth, who make up roughly three-quarters of the country’s 37 million inhabitants, planned on abstaining en masse in protest of the vote’s credibility. In order for the country to progress any further, there is a dire need to start by finally connecting the leaders and the masses. Despite the hype of reform,  the latest election will not accomplish that goal.
-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy In Focus on 11/05/2012
-Wided Khadraoui graduated from the London School of Economics with an MSc in conflict studies. She is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus

Friday, May 11, 2012

Israel's New Kind Of Coalition : What Netanyahu Can Do With Three-Quarters Of The Knesset

Israel's new coalition government will strengthen Benjamin Netanyahu's hand on Iran. But it will also force him to address long-standing internal issues, suggesting that Israelis, even as they trust Netanyahu on foreign policy, are no longer willing to defer domestic change.

By Yossi Klein Halevi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Shaul Mofaz, head of the Kadima party, right. (Ammar Awad / Courtesy Reuters)

In forming a vast new coalition government earlier this week -- which now includes the centrist party, Kadima, in addition to right-wing factions -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has one overriding purpose: to strengthen his hand on Iran. He now has uncontested political legitimacy with which to pressure the United States against protracted negotiations with Iran and to continue threatening a preemptive attack of his own.
Yet although Netanyahu cares most about stopping the Iranian nuclear program, the immediate impetus for the unity government was domestic: a call for electoral reform and ending the exemption of ultra-Orthodox seminary students from serving in the military. Even as Netanyahu forms the expanded coalition to advance his position on Iran, he cannot ignore these internal issues -- a sign that the Israeli electorate increasingly demands that its leaders address foreign and domestic concerns simultaneously.
The unity deal is Netanyahu’s attempt to reiterate to the United States his resolve to stop Iran from acquiring atomic weapons. In March, when U.S. President Barack Obama attempted to reassure Israel that he would not allow Iran to become a nuclear power by declaring that “the United States will always have Israel’s back,” Jerusalem essentially responded, “No thanks.” Israelis will not entrust their security to any outsider, even a friend. They recall that weeks before the 1967 Six-Day War, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, as good a friend as Israel has had in the White House, refused an Israeli request to lead an international flotilla to open the Straits of Tiran, which Egypt had shut to Israeli shipping -- even though Washington had promised to do precisely that in return for an Israeli withdrawal from Sinai following the 1956 Suez War. After Johnson’s refusal, Israel launched a successful preemptive strike against Egypt.
The creation of a unity government confirms that preemption remains an option for Israel toward threats perceived as existential. And that policy has broad potential support. What’s more, the much-publicized attacks on Netanyahu’s Iran policy have to some extent been misunderstood abroad. Not even Netanyahu’s most bitter critics -- such as Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, and, more recently, Yuval Diskin, the former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service -- have suggested that Israel could live with a nuclear Iran. The debate, instead, has been over timing. That is especially the case with Kadima head Shaul Mofaz, who said in March that an attack on Iran would be “disastrous.” Some have claimed that he may use his position in the cabinet to oppose a strike. Yet Mofaz merely condemned a “premature” operation, and stated that he would back Netanyahu if it became apparent that only an Israeli attack could stop Iran’s nuclear program. In fact, in 2008, Mofaz said that "if Iran continues with its program for developing nuclear weapons, we will attack it… [it] will be unavoidable."
In creating a resilient government, Netanyahu has, in effect, put Obama’s diplomatic initiative with Iran on probation. If negotiations fail to produce tangible results soon, or if, as Israeli policymakers fear, Obama is prepared to allow Iran to reach breakout capacity without actually producing a bomb, Israel is better positioned to strike alone.
The coalition has also strengthened Netanyahu’s policy toward the Palestinians. Although Netanyahu suggested that the new government would make advancing the peace process one of its top objectives, negotiations will likely remain stalled. Even if Netanyahu were to impose another settlement freeze, as he did in 2009, no Israeli government, let alone this one, would stop building in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem -- a Palestinian precondition for resuming peace talks. And little public pressure exists to resume the process. Even many Israelis who oppose Netanyahu agree that blame for the lack of progress hardly belongs to Israel alone. Most Israelis -- around 70 percent, according to repeated polls conducted by the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace -- support a two-state solution. But that same majority, those polls reveal, doubts the possibility of an agreement in the near future and questions whether any territorial concessions will win Israel real peace and legitimacy. That is one reason that, in six weeks of anti-government social protests last summer led by young liberal activists, the peace process went unmentioned. And now, given the uncertainty of relations with Egypt, with whom Israel shares its only successful land-for-peace agreement, Israelis are hardly prepared to risk another territorial withdrawal, especially from territories that border Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Much of the international community has profoundly misread the attitude of the Israeli public toward the occupation and peace. Contrary to what many foreign commentators have suggested, the Israeli mainstream has not accepted the status quo with smug indifference. Instead, most Israelis keenly understand the long-term dangers posed by the occupation to Israel’s international standing and to its ability to remain both a Jewish and a democratic state. All major Israeli parties now accept a two-state solution. Twenty years ago, the Labor Party opposed a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza; today, even Yisrael Beiteinu, the party of right-wing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, accepts the principle of Palestinian statehood. In endorsing the idea of two states for two peoples, Netanyahu negated a core ideological principle of the Likud, and has helped transform the debate over the territories from an ideological to a pragmatic issue: Under what conditions can Israel withdraw in relative safety? For many supporters, Netanyahu offers the best reassurance of protecting vital Israeli security interests in any future withdrawal.
Netanyahu now has over three-quarters of the Knesset in his government. When the prime minister founded his government three years ago, he hoped to create a unity coalition. But he failed in efforts to include Kadima, and although he did bring in Labor, it eventually quit. (A small breakaway faction, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, remained.) Still, he did exclude the Knesset’s most right-wing party, the National Union, which supports the most militant settlers. And with this new coalition, Netanyahu can credibly claim to represent the broad Israeli center.
Although the new unity government will allow Netanyahu to focus on Iran, it will also force him to address critical domestic issues. For the first time, the political system is positioned to deal with long-standing structural and ideological distortions that threaten the cohesion of Israeli society. Foremost among those is the wholesale exemption of thousands of ultra-Orthodox seminary students from the military draft -- a separatism that is, thanks to coalition politics, subsidized by the Israeli mainstream. Along with ending the mass exemptions, this coalition will need to reform the electoral system to prevent the ultra-Orthodox minority from continuing to dictate terms to every coalition.
The new government will aim to implement a system of universal conscription that will allow the ultra-Orthodox to perform alternative national service instead of joining the military. This has significant implications for another community outside the mainstream -- Israel’s 1.2 million Arab Israelis. Aside from the Druze, a minority Islamic sect, Arab Israelis are exempt from the draft. Yet some form of national service is essential in strengthening the Arab case for equality in a society whose Jewish men devote three years to the nation’s defense and then continue in reserve duty into their forties.
Initial polls suggest that the Israeli public largely doubts that the new coalition will change the electoral system or enact universal conscription. Given the cynical nature of Israeli politics, the skepticism is understandable. But this time it may be wrong. Mofaz knows that his political future depends on showing results. And Netanyahu understands that if he fails to exploit the historic opportunity for change that he has created, he will face the public’s harsh judgment.
Still, with the issue of Iran pressing, time is not on the government’s side. Domestic change must begin quickly. And given that Netanyahu prefers to negotiate with ultra-Orthodox leaders and establish a gradual transition to conscription, that process has to start before potential security emergencies intervene and sideline internal affairs.
Whether or not Netanyahu can solve these problems, the fact that he cannot ignore them, even at this fateful moment with Iran, indicates a profound transformation of Israeli politics. Israelis are no longer willing to defer domestic change. Ironically, the more daunting Israel’s external threats, the more the public has turned inward. That is an expression of Israeli pragmatism: since the average Israeli believes that he personally cannot affect developments in the region, then better focus on problems closer at hand.
Zionism once promised that Israel would become an equal, accepted member of the community of nations. Besieged and embattled, it is hardly that. But Zionism did fulfill one pledge: to teach Jews how to defend themselves. For now, at least, self-defense from existential threat defines Israeli politics. Yet as even this coalition of national emergency proves, Israel’s leaders can no longer ignore the longing of their people for a politics of normalcy.
-This commentary was first published in Foreign Affairs on 11/05/2012
-Yossi Klein Halevi is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a contributing editor to the New Republic

Jihad Comes To Egypt

By Raymond Ibrahim

                                                   Salafist preacher, Mohamed Hasan - Al-Shrouk

Considering Egypt's presidential elections take place later this month, last weekend's Islamist clash with the military could not have come at a worse time.
First, the story: due to overall impatience—and rage that the Salafi presidential candidate, Abu Ismail, was disqualified (several secular candidates were also disqualified)—emboldened Islamists began to gather around the Defense Ministry in Abbassia, Cairo, late last week, chanting jihadi slogans, and preparing for a "million man" protest for Friday, May 4th.
As Egypt's Al Ahram put it, "Major Egyptian Islamist parties and groups—including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist Calling and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya—have issued calls for a Tahrir Square demonstration on Friday under the banner of 'Saving the revolution.' … Several non-Islamist revolutionary groups, meanwhile, have expressed their refusal to participate in the event." In other words, last Friday was largely an Islamist protest (even though some in the Western media still portray it as a "general" demonstration).
There, in front of the Defense Ministry, the Islamists exposed their true face—exposed their hunger for power, their unpatriotic motivations, and their political ineptitude. For starters, among those leading the protests was none other than Muhammad al-Zawahiri, a brother of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and a seasoned jihadi in his own right, who was only recently acquitted and released from prison, where, since 1998, he was incarcerated "on charges of undergoing military training in Albania and planning military operations in Egypt."
Before the Friday protest, Zawahiri appeared "at the head of hundreds of protesters," including "dozens of jihadis," demonstrating in front of the Defense Ministry. They waved banners that read, "Victory or Death" and chanted "Jihad! Jihad!"—all punctuated by cries of "Allahu Akbar!" Likewise, Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya—the group responsible for slaughtering some 60 European tourists in the 1997 Luxor Massacre—was at the protests. Even the so-called "moderate" Muslim Brotherhood participated.
Two lessons emerge here: 1) an Islamist is an Islamist is an Islamist: when it comes down to ideology, they are one; 2) Violence and more calls to jihad are the fruits of clemency—the thanks Egypt's Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) gets for releasing such Islamists imprisoned during ousted President Hosni Mubarak's tenure.
As for the actual protests (which, as one might expect from the quality of its participants, quickly turned savage) this Egyptian news clip shows bearded Salafis wreaking havoc and screaming jihadi slogans as they try to break into the Defense Ministry, homemade bombs waiting to be used, and a girl in black hijab savagely tearing down a security barbed-wire—the hallmarks of a jihadi takeover.
More tellingly, jihadis in the nearby Nour Mosque opened fire on the military from the windows of the minaret; and when the military stormed the mosque, apprehending the snipers, all the Muslim Brotherhood had to say was: "We also condemn the aggression [from the military] against the house of God (Nour Mosque) and the arrest of people from within"—without bothering to denounce the terror such people were committing from within 'the house of God."
It is worthwhile contrasting this episode with last year's Maspero massacre, when Egypt's Coptic Christians demonstrated because their churches were constantly being attacked. Then, the military burst forth with tanks, intentionally running Christians over, killing dozens, and trying to frame the Copts for the violence (all of which was quickly exposed as lies). Likewise, while some accuse the Copts of housing weapons in their churches to "conquer" Egypt, here is more evidence that mosques are stockpiled with weapons.
At any rate, what was billed as a "protest" was quickly exposed as Islamists doing their thing—waging jihad against the infidel foe. Yet this time, their foe was the Egyptian army; as opposed to SCAF—the entrenched, and largely disliked, ruling military council—the Egyptian army is popular with most Egyptians.
As one Egyptian political activist put it, "The public doesn't differentiate between Salafists, Wahhabis or Muslim Brotherhood any more. They are all Islamists. They have lost support with the public, it is irreversible. Egyptians have seen their army and soldiers being attacked. It has stirred a lot of emotions." A BBC report concurs: "The army holds a special, respected place in Egyptian society, and as far as many Egyptians were concerned it was attacked, not by a foreign enemy, but by Islamists…. One soldier died in the attack. Egyptian TV also showed dramatic pictures of injured soldiers."
The remarks of an Egyptian news anchorwoman as she showed such violent clips are further noteworthy. In dismay, she rhetorically asked: "Who is the enemy? They [protesters] are calling for jihad against whom? Are our soldiers being attacked by Israeli soldiers—or is it our own people attacking them? Why don't you go fight the Israeli enemy to liberate Palestine! Who are you liberating Egypt from? This is unacceptable. Do you people want a nation or do you want constant jihad—and a jihad against whom, exactly"?
To place her comments in context, known that, in Egypt, jihadis are often portrayed as the "good guys"—fighting for Egypt's honor, fighting to "liberate Palestine," and so on—while Israel is portrayed as the natural recipient of jihad. After Friday's violent clash, however, Egyptians are learning that no one is immune from the destructive forces of jihad, including Egypt itself and its guardian, the military. Two weeks before the presidential elections, perhaps voters are also learning that an Islamist president will bring only more chaos and oppression—just like his followers on display last Friday. Time will tell.
-This commentary was published by Middle East Forum on 10/05/2012
-Raymond Ibrahim is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center and an Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum

Israel's Spy Revolt

The war of words over an Israeli attack on Iran is splitting the political leadership from military and intelligence chiefs. And that dangerous divide in Jerusalem might well lead to real war.

                                             Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Something has gone very wrong with Israel's posture on Iran's nuclear program. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak lead a confrontational approach -- including dramatic interviews and speeches to U.S. audiences that have convinced many that Israel might soon strike Iran's nuclear facilities -- the former heads of Israel's intelligence agencies have come out publicly against the government's position. First, Meir Dagan -- who headed the Mossad until late 2010 and coordinated Israel's Iran policy -- called an attack on Iran "the most foolish thing I've heard." In April, Yuval Diskin -- the previous head of the domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet -- voiced a scathing and personal critique of Netanyahu and Barak. Diskin questioned not only the leaders' policy, but also their very judgment and capacity to lead, warning against their "messianic" approach to Iran's nuclear program.
Given these differences, should the United States -- and Iran -- fear an Israeli strike more, or should they relax as Israel busies itself with internal arguments? Although it may be tempting to think that the Dagan-Diskin campaign lessens the chance of confrontation, in truth it raises two dire possibilities. First, if the former spy chiefs are correct about Netanyahu's and Barak's lack of judgment, this is hardly cause for comfort. If, however, Dagan and Diskin are mistaken and Israeli strategy is in fact calculated and sober, then undermining Israel's credibility -- as they themselves have done -- makes an Israeli strike more likely, not less. The less credible the Israeli threat, the more likely Iran is to try to call an Israeli bluff, and thus the more likely Israel is to try to back up its words with deeds.
At the core of the question is how one interprets Israel's confrontational approach to Iran. Some view the Netanyahu-Barak strategy as a deliberate attempt to push the United States and the international community into decisive action, including tough sanctions and the threat of U.S. military action, lest Israel strike unilaterally. Israel, in this view, is acting as a "rational madman," calculating that appearing reckless will compel the United States, the international community, and Iran to heed its warnings. In an interview with the Hebrew daily Israel Hayom, Barak in effect said as much: The critics "travel the world, and their words weaken the considerable achievement of Israeli policy, where we made the Iranian issue a major, urgent issue, not only for Israel but for the world." For Barak, Israel's strategy has been manifestly successful, focusing the attention of a reluctant, distracted international community on Iran's nuclear program and producing stifling sanctions on the Iranian banking system.
But not all view the Israeli strategy this way. Some observers, both foreign and Israeli, are convinced that Netanyahu and Barak are genuine in their doomsday rhetoric and resolve to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. If Netanyahu is willing to evoke the Holocaust and warn of the Iranian "existential threat," the argument goes, he cannot mean anything less -- nor can he politically afford anything less -- than overt military action. Netanyahu indeed has been preoccupied with the Iranian question for decades and may view stopping Iran's nuclear ambitions as a generational challenge that will define his term. In this view, the Netanyahu-Barak rhetoric is meant to prepare the international community for an Israeli strike, which, according to Barak, would require international legitimacy.
The confusion over what Netanyahu and Barak actually mean is no accident. The key to deterrence is the credibility of the deterrent; the key to a "rational madman" strategy is that others do not see his posture as a bluff. From outside the prime minister's office, therefore, the two explanations for Israel's position are, by design, functionally equivalent.
One's view of the Dagan-Diskin critiques therefore depends on one's assessment of Netanyahu and Barak. If Diskin is correct about the leaders' lack of judgment, the former spy chiefs are breaking their silence to stave off a grave danger. But if Diskin is wrong, the former spy chiefs' words hold serious consequences for Israeli strategy -- by undermining the credibility of the threat of military action. On the face of it, accusations of messianic tendencies fit perfectly with a madman posture, further scaring the world into action. Dagan in particular was exposed to -- and indeed produced -- the most classified intelligence on Iran's program; he helped manage Israel's covert response to the program for years and participated in some of the most sensitive meetings with the political leadership. If the former intelligence chiefs, who should know best, are so concerned as to speak publicly against their own leadership -- something that appears odd to most Israelis, as it does to many abroad -- then surely foreign observers should believe the sincerity of the Israeli warnings.
On the other hand, although the Netanyahu government firmly commands the military (full-scale military disobedience is not even contemplated in Israeli society), it does not operate in a vacuum. The heads of the military, the Mossad, and the Shin Bet are household names whose assessments carry weight in Israeli public opinion. When such high-profile officials publicly question the leadership's judgment, Israelis listen. Although some (such as Barak in his Israel Hayom interview) have questioned Dagan's and Diskin's motives in speaking publicly, and although Netanyahu's political allies have struck back forcefully and impugned their civic responsibility, few doubt the sincerity of their position. Dagan and Diskin, moreover, are not alone. Former military commanders, and even the current chief of staff, appear to hold different views from the political leadership on the severity of the Iranian threat. The new vice prime minister and former defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, voiced his support of Diskin before joining the Netanyahu government. Even among the most hawkish senior ministers, there is opposition to Barak's approach, especially on the urgency of a strike; Vice Prime Minister Moshe "Bogie" Ya'alon, a former chief of staff like Mofaz, has implicitly criticized Barak's notion of a "zone of immunity" -- a point at which Iran's facilities would be immune to an attack if Israel did not act quickly -- noting, "Anything fortified by a human can be penetrated by a human."
With all this opposition, it may be no surprise that the public is wary of a unilateral strike; according to a recent survey by Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution, only 19 percent of Israelis endorsed an Israeli strike without U.S. support, and 32 percent opposed an attack regardless. Israeli public opinion may simply not permit the political leadership -- always careful of the electoral ramifications of its actions -- to undertake a step as bold as a unilateral military strike. Most importantly: Iranian and international observers know this.
With the U.S. presidential election in November and ongoing talks between Iran and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), the possibility of an Israeli strike will likely remain low for the time being. An Israeli airstrike would require carefully orchestrated precision bombing that would be sensitive to weather conditions, meaning that the next window for an Israeli airstrike would likely be in the spring of 2013. Still, if Israel has any say in the matter, the Iranian nuclear issue will not go away. If the results of the P5+1 negotiations do not ensure the verifiable end to high-level uranium enrichment and the removal of existing highly enriched uranium from Iran, Israel may return to the warpath. And the new national unity government in Israel, though it may moderate the leadership's position somewhat, will also grant the government valuable domestic political cover for a strike, should one be ordered.
The lesson from the intelligence chiefs' "revolt" in Israel, therefore, should not be complacency, but concern. Toward the end of 2012, the world will face either an Israel that is determined to use overt force to stop a nuclear-armed Iran, as Dagan and Diskin suggest, or a "rational madman" who believes he needs to repair the credibility that some of Israel's most prominent military and intelligence chiefs have undermined. Either way, it is vital that the international community maintain its focus on the Iranian nuclear program so that the Israeli bluff -- if there is one -- is not tested.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 10/05/2012
-Natan Sachs is a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Man for All Seasons

Egypt's presidential front-runner is a fascinating political chameleon. But does he have enough real support to win the upcoming election?


                                                          Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh

In January, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh was a long shot to become Egypt's next president. When I walked into the Islamist candidate's basement in a far-flung Cairo suburb -- which was doubling as a "backup" headquarters -- it made me think back to the early, insurgent days of Barack Obama's campaign, when Hillary Clinton was still the presumptive Democratic nominee. The basement, with its large spare rooms, was packed with young volunteers. It had a chaotic, bustling feel. Aboul Fotouh's supporters may have hailed from radically different backgrounds, but they believed, above all, in the candidate. They wanted to transcend the old battle lines of "Islamist" or "liberal" and reimagine Egyptian politics in the process.
What those grand ambitions mean in practice is, at times, unclear. As Aboul Fotouh has risen to front-runner status in the first ever competitive presidential election in Egypt's history, he has become the Rorschach test of Egyptian politics. Liberals think he's more liberal than he actually is. Conservatives hope he's more conservative.
It's an understatement to say that the Aboul Fotouh campaign is a big-tent movement. A former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and, for decades, one of Egypt's most prominent Islamist figures, he has become the standard-bearer of many of the young liberals who led Egypt's revolution -- including Google executive Wael Ghonim. He is also, however, the preferred candidate of the country's hard-line Salafi groups, including the al-Nour Party and its parent organization al-Dawa al-Salafiya, one of Egypt's largest religious movements. This is all the more impressive considering that, unlike the United States or most European countries, the primary political cleavage in Egypt has little to do with economics and much more to do with religion.
Aboul Fotouh's success stems in part from his ability to neutralize this religious divide. One of his messages -- and one that has appeal for liberals and hard-line Islamists alike -- is this: We are all, in effect, Islamists, so why fight over it? As he explained to a Salafi television channel in February, "Today those who call themselves liberals or leftists, this is just a political name, but most of them understand and respect Islamic values. They support the sharia and are no longer against it." In a creative attempt at redefinition, Aboul Fotouh noted that all Muslims are, by definition, Salafi, in the sense that they are loyal to the Salaf, the earliest, most pious generations of Muslims.
Aboul Fotouh is able to make this argument and make it sound convincing, in part because of who he is. He is the rare figure who has been, at various points in his career, a Salafi, a Muslim Brother, and, today, a Turkish-style "liberal Islamist." In the 1970s, he rose to prominence as a leader and founder of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, the religious movement that wrested control over universities from the once dominant leftists. In his biography, Aboul Fotouh recalls the early Salafi influence on his ideas: He and his fellow students aggressively promoted sex segregation on campus. At one point, they tried to "prove" to the Muslim Brotherhood's leader at the time, Umar al-Tilmisani, that music was haram, or forbidden by Islam.
Over the course of the decade, Aboul Fotouh developed close relationships with those who would later become the leading lights of Salafi thought. After the 2011 revolution, Aboul Fotouh, then in the process of splitting with the Brotherhood, was one of the few politicians to take Salafists seriously. It helped that he knew them. While the Muslim Brotherhood tended to treat Salafists as immature, younger brothers in the Islamic family, Aboul Fotouh exaggerated their power -- he once claimed that Salafists outnumbered Muslim Brothers 20-to-1 -- and pledged to seek their vote. Respect, it turns out, can go much further than ideological proximity.
But the ideological tensions within the Islamist camp remain, even if Aboul Fotouh's message tends to paper them over. According to him, all Islamists agree on the usul (the "fundamentals") but differ on the furu (the "specifics") of religious practice. In his February interview on Salafi television, he estimated, implausibly, that Islamists agree on 99 percent of the issues.
Thus far, his liberal supporters have dismissed such comments or explained them away. Part of it is the lack of alternatives. The other front-runner, former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, is seen as felool, a derogatory term used to describe "remnants" of the old regime. Part of it, however, is that they really seem to believe Aboul Fotouh is who they want him to be. Although Aboul Fotouh is adamantly an Islamist, he has also broken with his former organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamists on key issues. Last year, for instance, Aboul Fotouh asserted that a Muslim has the right to convert to Christianity -- a particularly controversial position for a presidential candidate to take, given that most Sunni scholars hold that the punishment for apostasy is death.
Aboul Fotouh has often insisted on the dangers of mixing preaching and party politics, a position that appeals to liberals as well as some Islamists. When I met with him in 2010 at the height of the Mubarak regime's repression -- and just months before the most rigged parliamentary elections in Egyptian history -- he spoke at length about the need to separate the two. The Muslim Brotherhood, he said, can deal with political issues but should leave competition over power to political parties.
"Putting religion and political authority within one hand is very dangerous. That's what happened in Iran," he told me, peppering his measured Arabic with choice English words for added emphasis. "Historically, famous preachers were not part of the power structure. It's these [autocratic] regimes who put the two together -- putting al-Azhar [the preeminent center of Islamic learning] under the control of the state."
Aboul Fotouh consistently valued the Muslim Brotherhood's social and evangelical work over its accumulation of political power. In July 2008, I asked him what would happen if Hosni Mubarak's regime shut the Brotherhood out of parliament. Faced with the prospect of even more repression, he seemed surprisingly calm. "The Muslim Brotherhood is a social movement in the first place. Its presence in parliament is useful and good, but lack of parliamentary representation does not have an existential effect on the Brotherhood. From 1970 to 1984, we weren't in parliament, and they were 14 of the most active years for the Brotherhood's work of preaching and education."
In this respect, Aboul Fotouh is an old-school Islamist, seeing himself as a faithful heir to Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna's legacy. According to its bylaws, the group's original aim was "to raise a generation of Muslims who would understand Islam correctly and act according to its teachings." Until 1934, the bylaws forbade direct political action. Decades later, General Guide Tilmisani, fearing party politics would corrupt the Brotherhood's soul, prevented the organization from contesting parliamentary elections for many years.
There is a tension, however, between Aboul Fotouh's sometimes liberal pronouncements and his essentially majoritarian understanding of democracy. When I sat down with Aboul Fotouh for the first time in the summer of 2006, I wanted to understand his philosophy of government, to the extent that he had one. He repeatedly emphasized that the people, represented by a freely elected parliament, are the source of authority. On the thorny question, however, of what Islamists would do if parliament passed an "un-Islamic" law, he dismissed the concern: "The parliament won't grant rights to gays because that goes against the prevailing culture of society, and if [members of parliament] did that, they'd lose the next election," he explained. "Whether you are a communist, socialist, or whatever, you can't go against the prevailing culture. There is already a built-in respect for sharia."
This notion has a long pedigree in Islamic thought: Prophet Mohammed is believed to have said, "My ummah [community] will not agree on an error." Likewise, Aboul Fotouh was confident that once Egyptian society was free, the best ideas would rise to the top. There was little need, then, to regulate society from the top down. On their own, without government getting too much in the way, Egyptians would do the right thing. And this would inevitably help Islam. "What happens in a free society?" Aboul Fotouh went on. "I hold conferences and spread my ideas through newspapers and television to try to bring public opinion closer to me.… We have confidence in what we believe."
If people are looking for a consistent strain in Aboul Fotouh's thought, it is this: that Islam has already won out and will continue to win out. Islam is a source of unity and national strength rather than one of division. Depending on where exactly an Egyptian voter stands, this is either reassuring and somewhat banal, or mildly frightening, particularly for the country's Christian minority.
Nevertheless, it is an idea with analogues elsewhere in the region, most notably in Turkey and Tunisia, where "moderate" Islamists came to power by tapping into a religious mainstream that had lost faith in the secular project of previous decades. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for example, used democratization to strengthen the place of Islam in public life. He embraced European Union accession talks while knowing full well that the required liberal reforms would weaken the military's influence and empower Islamic currents in a country where the right to openly express religious values had been severely curtailed. In Tunisia, Rached Ghannouchi and his al-Nahda party have backed off from demands that Islamic law be enshrined in the Tunisian Constitution, perhaps knowing that Islamization of Tunisian society is already well under way, regardless of what the Tunisian Constitution says.
Indeed, the same attacks that follow Aboul Fotouh's counterparts in Turkey and Tunisia will be used against him: that he is a proponent of "stealth Islamization" and that he remains faithful to the project of applying sharia. The critics might be right. If Aboul Fotouh becomes president, there will be a battle -- between his liberal, revolutionary supporters and his Islamist backers -- over the direction his presidency takes. Now that the major Salafi organizations have endorsed him, they are likely to have significant influence in an Aboul Fotouh administration, pushing his presidency to the right on social and moral issues.
But though Salafists are a critical bloc of support for the Aboul Fotouh campaign, they have little presence in the candidate's inner circle and campaign organization, which is composed mostly of ex-Muslim Brotherhood members, liberals, and revolutionary youth. One of Aboul Fotouh's closest aides is Rabab El-Mahdi, a Marxist political science professor, who says her "biggest project" is ending the Islamist-secularist divide and focusing on the bread-and-butter issues that actually matter in people's lives. Another is the 30-year-old Ali El-Bahnasawy, a self-described liberal who is Aboul Fotouh's media advisor. He told me that the Salafists' endorsement was "amazing" and credited them for realizing that "Egypt needs to end the polarization in the country now." For him, this is the essence of Aboul Fotouh's appeal. "We need someone," Bahnasawy said, "who can talk to the Islamists and speak their language and talk to the liberals and gain their trust as well."
The popularity of Aboul Fotouh's campaign is partly a reaction to growing polarization in Egypt, where fears abound of an "Algeria scenario" of annulled elections, dissolved parliaments, and military coups. But just as the high hopes of the Obama campaign were dashed by the political compromises inherent in governing, an Aboul Fotouh administration may find it difficult to transcend the basic realities of Egyptian political life. If he wins, his supporters will soon find that the divisions between Egypt's feuding political currents do not dissipate quickly, if at all.
It is perhaps telling that Aboul Fotouh's rise comes at a time when religious belief has become an easy substitute for real discussion on economic recovery, security-sector reform, or how to fight income inequality. For the vast majority of Egyptians, the debate over sharia has been utterly beside the point. It is an elite debate and, in some ways, a manufactured one. As Aboul Fotouh will be the first to say, all major political forces support Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution, which states that the "principles of the Islamic sharia are the primary source of legislation." Even the most "secular" party -- the Free Egyptians -- took to campaigning in rural areas with banners reading "The Quran Is Our Constitution." Meanwhile, it was the Salafists, and not the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, who entered into serious negotiations over forming a parliamentary coalition with liberal parties. As a senior official in the Salafi al-Nour Party once put it to me, "Here in Egypt, even the liberals are conservatives."
Sharia has become the "hope and change" of Egyptian politics -- all say they like it, but no one quite knows what it means. As the most powerful man in Egypt and with a bully pulpit to match, Egypt's first revolutionary president will have a fleeting opportunity to redefine the meaning of Islam in public life.
In the introduction to his electoral program, Aboul Fotouh, the candidate, embraces the application of sharia. But there's a caveat: "The understanding of implementation of Islamic law is not, as some people think, about applying the hudud punishments [such as cutting of the hands of thieves]," the program reads. "In its complete understanding, Islamic law has to do with realizing the essential and urgent needs of humankind." The program then goes on to list combating poverty and fighting corruption as two fundamental components of applying Islamic law.
For Aboul Fotouh, sharia is both everything and nothing all at once. For now at least, that seems to be exactly the way he wants it.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 09/05/2012
-Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Series Of Restaurant Bombings Has 'Killed' Lebanese Seaside City, But Why?

By Zoi Constantine from Tyre, Lebanon

The Nocean restaurant, which serves alcohol, is the latest establishment to be bombed in Tyre. Its owner, Mohammed Safieddine, says the bombers were targeting tourism and had

Residents in this Lebanese seaside city are baffled by a series of bombings that appear to be linked only by the fact their targets are places that sold alcohol.
Since November, four establishments, including two restaurants, have been targeted. No one has been seriously injured in the attacks and no group has claimed responsibility.
But the motive has generated as much speculation as the perpetrators.
In the largely conservative, majority Shiite south of Lebanon, Tyre is known as a comparatively liberal and relaxed town, home to Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians.
Are the attacks aimed at creating strife in this multi-denominational city? Is it a warning from conservatives who oppose the ready availability of alcohol and young people mixing at parties and the beaches? Could it be a spillover of simmering tensions and political divisions in Lebanon, where the gap between the ruling coalition and the opposition is widening?
Zahi Zaidan, the manager of the Nocean restaurant, the most recent target in April, said people were on edge.
"They succeeded to put fear in people. They are not going out for parties at the moment. I personally am also in fear about what happened," the 35-year-old said while seated in a booth at a friend's nearby cafe,
"They are targeting tourism, but they are using the excuse of alcohol."
At this time of year, Tyre, in the south of Lebanon, is normally gearing up for its busy summer season, when locals and tourists flock to the Mediterranean coastal town.
But two weeks after the attack, debris still litters the damaged staircase leading to Nocean. A car that was parked outside the entrance to the restaurant when the bomb went off remains nearby. It is wrecked, and its windscreen shattered. The police investigation continues.
The bomb was detonated just before midnight at closing time on Sunday, April 22, targeting the third-floor restaurant and slightly injuring several staff. A McDonald's on the ground floor was not affected by the blast.
Mohammed Safieddine, who owns Nocean and another restaurant along the nearby corniche, said the explosion caused hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage, none of which is covered by insurance.
Mr Safieddine stopped serving alcohol at his corniche venue two months ago after what he described as unsolicited "advice", without specifying from whom.
"I decided it's safer to do that," he said. "But whoever is behind these bombings, they have killed the city. There are no more people coming out and the city is empty. It has had a major effect."
The Shiite Amal movement, which has a strong following in Tyre, has criticised the bombings, describing them as aimed at sowing instability. A source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the perpetrators were "trying to shake the security situation in the country".
Soldiers with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) are also stationed near the city.
Last December, a roadside bomb targeted a patrol close to Tyre, injuring five French soldiers and one Lebanese civilian.
As with the restaurant bombings, no group claimed responsibility for the attack, which was one of three last year against the international peacekeepers in Lebanon.
Timor Goksel, a former spokesman and senior adviser for Unifil, dismissed the idea that the recent attacks were aimed at foreigners or peacekeepers. He believes the perpetrators could be from local extremist groups trying to prove a point.
"From the nature of the attacks it seems like small groups that are not that militarily experienced," he said. "They are spoilers, but they can ruin things."
The Tyre bombings are not the first such incidents to target alcohol vendors in the south of Lebanon, but it has been years since the last attacks.
Last year, in the more conservative town of Nabatiyeh, several shops were instructed to stop selling alcohol by a community campaign.
Seated just inside the doorway of a small liquor store his family has run in Tyre for decades, a man - who did not want to be named fearing he might be targeted - said whoever was behind the recent blasts in his city were trying to send a message.
"Maybe it is about alcohol or maybe it is just about chaos. They do this to confuse everyone here," said the man in his sixties.
"People are, of course, scared, because there are so many questions. Sunni and Shia people are also very upset about this."
-This report was published in The National on 09/05/2012

Iran: Sanctions Are Only A Stop-Gap

Sanctions have succeeded in bringing Tehran back to the negotiating table, but they are a tactic, not a strategy. Any long-term policy has to aim for a democratic Iran.

By Patrick Clawson
 At a bazaar in Tehran. (Raheb Homavandi / Courtesy Reuters)
To judge the effectiveness of Western sanctions against Iran, it is important to first establish their purpose. U.S. officials and their European counterparts have set out a number of different goals for the sanctions regime, including deterring the proliferation of nuclear technology across the Middle East, as other countries imitate Iran, and persuading Iran to comply with the UN Security Council’s orders to suspend all nuclear enrichment. The sanctions have met some of those aims and failed to meet others. But for the Obama administration, they have succeeded in one crucial way -- bringing Iran back to the negotiating table. The question, then, is not whether sanctions have worked but whether the strategy they serve is correct.
To begin with, Tehran’s decision to re-enter discussions about the future of its nuclear program represents a dramatic about-face. During the January 2011 round of negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5 plus 1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany), for example, Tehran rejected any talk of its nuclear program. For the next 15 months, it refused to meet until the P5 plus 1 accepted the precondition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium. In new talks in Istanbul this past March, however, Iran agreed to discuss its nuclear efforts and dropped its precondition.
The Islamic Republic did not do this out of goodwill but because of tougher sanctions. By demonstrating a willingness to negotiate and working closely with Europe, the Obama administration has rallied many countries behind its efforts. This broad coalition has established increasingly severe sanctions -- results that the United States could not have achieved alone. In March, for example, the European Union banned the largest Iranian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, the main institution used for transferring money between banks across the globe, thereby crippling the ability of Iranian financial institutions to conduct business. And earlier this year, the European Union began imposing an oil embargo on Iran that has already reduced the country’s oil exports. In the last six months, these measures, along with Iran's erratic economic policies, have robbed the currency of half its value and, according to Iranian estimates, caused inflation to soar above 20 percent (and likely much higher). Iranian Central Bank Governor Mahmoud Bahmani described the sanctions “as worse than physical war,” proclaiming Iran “under siege.” And Iranian business leaders worry that more sanctions are on the way, since the United States and Europe have made clear that the longer the impasse over its nuclear ambitions continues, the more economic and political trouble Iran will face.
The sanctions have also helped Washington slow Tehran’s nuclear progress. Alongside sabotage, defections, cyber attacks, and assassinations, sanctions -- such as the UN ban on the acquisition of so-called dual-use items, seemingly benign technologies that could be applied to the nuclear program -- have hampered Iran’s technological advancement. For example, the Islamic Republic, despite its best efforts, continues to use a poor, outdated design for its centrifuges, which frequently break down because the country cannot obtain better technology or high-quality materials.
Yet the sanctions do have limits. The EU oil embargo and U.S. and EU financial restrictions have largely failed to decrease Iran’s oil revenue. Those sanctions would have had much more impact a decade ago, when Iran averaged $19 billion a year in oil income. Oil prices are now so high that Iran can compensate for Western pressure. Prior to the recent sanctions, the International Monetary Fund estimated that revenue from Iran’s oil and gas exports in 2012–13 would reach $104 billion, $23 billion more than in 2010–11. In March, The Wall Street Journal cited estimates that sanctions could cut Iranian oil income in half -- painful but still equal to the $54 billion Iran earned from oil sales in 2005–6, the year when it decided to provoke the West by resuming nuclear enrichment after a three-year pause. Even if sanctions could somehow decimate Iran’s economy, there is still no guarantee that the regime would end its pursuit of nuclear technology.
Whether or not diplomacy results in an agreement, the sanctions have already fulfilled the core objective of the Obama administration -- namely, kick-starting negotiations. But that is not the right goal. Given Iran’s poor track record of honoring agreements, negotiations remain a gamble because they may never lead to an agreement, let alone one that can be sustained. Rather than focus on talks that may not produce a deal, then, the United States should place far more emphasis on supporting democracy and human rights in Iran. A democratic Iran would likely drop state support for terrorism and end its interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries such as Iraq and Lebanon, improving stability in the Middle East. And although Iran’s strongly nationalist democrats are proud of the country’s nuclear progress, their priority is to rejoin the community of nations, so they will likely agree to peaceful nuclearization in exchange for an end to their country’s isolation.
The United States could assist democratic forces in Iran by providing money and moral support. It could fund people-to-people exchanges and student scholarships; support civil society groups providing assistance to Iranian activists; work closely with technology companies such as Google on how to transmit information to the Iranian people; and overhaul Voice of America’s Persian News Network, where journalistic standards have suffered under uneven management. It could also raise human rights abuses in every official meeting with Iranian officials, such as the ongoing nuclear negotiations, and bring Iranian rights violations to the United Nations and the International Court of Justice. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, understands the danger of a popular revolution in his country and has done everything in his power to prevent it. If the United States is going to take a risk, it should aim not for a partial, insecure nuclear arrangement but the best return possible -- a democratic Iran.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Affairs on 08/05/2012
-Patrick Clawson is Director of Research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the editor of numerous books and studies on Iran