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Learning From Iran How To Negotiate With The Israelis and Arabs

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by Amjad Atallah via TPM Café:

Thursday is the 40th day commemoration of the martyrdom of Neda Agha-Soltan, an Iranian woman shot dead while peacefully protesting against the election results in Iran. Her murder was televised via the Internet around the world and has become a symbol for Iranians protesting Ahmadinejad’s victory. Iranian opposition leaders have asked for permission to hold a mass demonstration to honor all those killed since the election but has been denied permission by the government even as the conservatives begin to turn on themselves.

Those killed by the government include Mohsen Ruholamini, the son of an adviser to the conservative presidential candidate and former leader of the Revolutionary Guard Mohsen Rezai, who died in prison after a severe beating.

In many ways, this is a continuation not only of the 1979 Revolution that overthrew the US-backed Shah of Iran, but also of the 1951 attempt to create a democratic government in Iran – ended by a US and British led coup in 1953.

President Obama has done the right thing, recognizing that we do not have clean hands in past dealings with Iran, empathizing with those Iranians fighting for their freedoms, and continuing to pursue our national interests with the Iranian government despite the domestic turmoil.

But on the anniversary of Neda’s death, it would be useful to take two fundamental lessons from our dealings with Iran and apply them to our dealings with the Israelis and Palestinians. Our interests in the Middle East continue to be compromised by not only a continuation of this conflict, but our inability to either resolve it or distance ourselves from it. So rather than ask the Israelis and Arabs for their advice on how to deal with Iran (sure sounds easy for them to urge us to go to war), we would be better served taking lessons from Iran and applying them to the Levant.

Lesson One: Religious leaders matter. It is ironic that in a country where religious leaders hold so much political power and in which evangelists have repeatedly run for President, that we continue to harbor the illusion that religion doesn’t matter elsewhere. The struggle in Iran for freedom today is not one between secularists on the one hand and religious leaders on the other.

Many of the clerics have stood against the election or at a minimum refused to endorse it. The religious clerical class is on both sides of this conflict, but with the Revolutionary Guard decidedly on one side. There would be no fight in Iran today if the clerical class stood lockstep with the Revolutionary Guard. These are the same clerical class who continue to debate the role of Islam in a modern republican democracy and who undoubtedly will be quoted by the next generation’s scholars.

In this sense, Iran is neither a theocracy nor a secular republic. Paying attention to this class is vital to the success of the reform movement and useful for our understanding of what is happening in Iran.

Likewise, Israel today is neither a secular democracy nor a rabbinic state. It is a hybrid with the Rabbinate holding extraordinary sway over the secular branches of government. And within them, there are also splits with the religious nationalists and the ultra-orthodox fighting their own battles – one over maximizing Israel’s territorial conquests through the settlement enterprise and one over completing the transition of Israel into a state run by Jewish law, a policy well under way to the dismay of many American and Israeli Jews.

The secular Ashkenazi elite that have ruled the state since its founding are no longer the leading visionaries of the state – they are politicians attempting to appease both wings of the religious establishment.

Palestinians don’t have the problem yet of deciding whether they have a secular democracy or a Wahabbi style Islamic state. They don’t have a state, any measure of sovereignty, or even a united national liberation movement.

But they do have strong fractures within Palestinian society that are class-based and increasingly ideology-based. The attempt by laypersons to utilize Islamic language and symbols has been a disaster. Islam has become conflated with attacks on civilians, not only by neo-conservatives, but also by Muslims. Arguments made on behalf of Islam by engineers quoting dubious and apocryphal hadith would make an Islamic jurist cringe.

We have to pay attention to the varying elements of both societies and recognize that those that are part of the problem will need to somehow be made part of the solution – in whole or in part.

Which brings me to Lesson Two: You negotiate with the leaders you’ve got, and apply your tactics to those realities, not the ones you wish you had. The United States is clearly sympathetic with the reformist camp in Iran because of their quest for greater political freedom and accountability, but we also recognize that on geo-political issues there is a common shared interest among Iranians.

For example, most or all Iranians support Palestinian freedom and Iran’s rights to nuclear energy, but not all support an antagonistic posture by their government toward Israel or the pursuit of nuclear weapons.

US national interests also don’t change regardless of whether Mousavi or Ahmadinejad is president. We want a cooperative relationship with Iran that recognizes our sphere of influence in the region and Iran’s legitimate security concerns while halting the spread of nuclear weapons in the region (Israel, Pakistan, and India already possessing stockpiles). Ultimately, we would want a regional security architecture free from nuclear weapons.

The US will negotiate our interests in the region as a whole with Iran regardless of who sits in the government while recognizing that popular sentiment will definitely matter – but we have to know who are the real members of government.

Likewise, we have vital national security interests that require a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Arab states, including a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It would be great if the two leaders that President Obama had to negotiate with were an Israeli war hero like Yitzhak Rabin and a Palestinian revolutionary leader with unquestioned leadership over his people like Yasser Arafat. But that is not who we have today (and some may argue at least partly as a result of US intervention).

In Israel, we have a Likud/Lieberman/Labor alliance that is hoping to run out the clock on diplomatic engagement to maintain the status quo – an indefinite occupation of Palestine with Palestinians corralled into walled-off ghettos (and an assumption of US support when the next inevitable war or intifada starts).

In the Occupied Palestinian Territory we have the remnants of an elected Hamas government confined (physically) to the Gaza Strip, a PLO leadership in Ramallah without a PLO, and a secular Fatah trying one last time to see if it can become a political party once again. Obviously, these are not the best of circumstances, but that is ultimately irrelevant to US national security interests. The only question is what tactics to use to get to our goals in light of these circumstances.

Fortunately for the US, the PLO leaders, all prominent Fatah activists, the leaders of civil society based political parties like Mustafa Barghouti’s Mubadara, and the Hamas leadership all appear to want some variation on the two state solution.

In Israel, Kadima remains committed to some variation of a two-state solution and Labor will apparently go either way.

But the US needs to start applying the same lessons of statecraft in the Holy Land that we use everywhere else where our interests are at stake. We should admire and support the Iranian people for their courage and creativity. And we should try to take it as inspiration to reflect on our own tactics going forward for establishing a new strategic relationship with the Israelis and Arabs – one conducive to our interests this time as well as to peace.

Irancove @ July 30, 2009

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