As President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu prepare to sit down later today, Obama is desperate to ease doubts on Iran. He may taste a legacy not blighted by economic downtown, Obamacare, and the Syrian civil war, but he should realize why so many are so skeptical. In my forthcoming book, Dancing with the Devil, I detail 30+ years of American outreach, Iranian rebuffs, and Tehran's insincerity. Why should Obama be very cautious now? Here are ten reasons:
So Yeni Şafak, Turkey's pro-government Islamist daily, has accused me personally of leading a cabal of former — mostly Jewish — officials to plan the Istanbul unrest months ago. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan can't even get Jewish conspiracies right: doesn't he know that on Sundays, we control the banks. On Mondays, we control the newspapers. On Tuesdays, we think about how we can stage terrorist attacks and blame al Qaeda. On Wednesdays, we attend meetings with George Soros to discuss interest rates. On Thursdays, we plan atrocities and then order the international media to broadcast cooking shows so no one need see the violence. On Fridays, we hunt Christian children so we can use their blood to make matzoh. On Saturdays, exhausted, we rest.
Seriously, though. The Yeni Şafak report harms Turkey's image. It reads like something out of an Iranian or Hamas newspaper. If Erdoğan wants to know who is causing these protests, all he needs to do is look in the mirror.
I've just returned from Bahrain, the tiny island Arab kingdom in the Persian Gulf, which for 40 years has hosted a U.S. naval facility which, for more than 15 years, has also been the U.S. Fifth Fleet headquarters.
As Bahrain's political unrest reaches a boiling point, the U.S. Fifth Fleet increasingly finds itself a symbolic hostage in a struggle. Sectarian grievances in Bahrain are long, and often legitimate. While the U.S. Navy does not involving itself in local politics, it nevertheless has become a symbol of the close generational relationship between the Bahraini monarchy and the White House.
Officially, there is no consensus among the opposition regarding the future of the U.S. presence. Mutual distrust is high, though. When visiting the United States, many opposition representatives reassure that they seek no change in the status of the U.S.-Bahraini relationship; Iranian news outlets have, however, cited some of the same figures saying the opposite.
Bahrain is strategically important and an incredibly diverse country, not only ethnically (with Arabs and those of Persian origin, not to mention South Asians and Filipinos if one includes the expatriate workers), but also religiously: The majority are Shi'ite Muslims, the ruling and more elite class are Sunni Muslims, and there are also a number of Christians and Jewish families, the latter mostly of Iraqi origin centuries ago. The Bahraini ambassador to the United States is Jewish.
Because most of the opposition is Shi'ite, there is concern in American policy circles and among many journalists that a hidden Iranian hand controls the Bahraini opposition. This translates into concern that meaningful reform would usher in a period of Iranian domination.
The issue, however, is far more nuanced. When the British evacuated the region, the United Nations brokered a referendum on Bahrain's future, and the vast majority—of both Sunni and Shi'ites—chose independence rather than incorporation into Iran. Certainly, the Iranians—who view most of the Persian Gulf, along with Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Caucasus as their near-abroad—never truly abandoned their claim. In 2007, Hossein Shariatmadari, whom the Supreme Leader of Iran appointed to edit the Kayhan newspaper and so is read by many Iran analysts as the Supreme Leader's proxy voice, penned an editorial reasserting Iran's claim over Bahrain.
I've spent the last several days in Bahrain, meeting with both government officials and members of the opposition. While I began my trip expecting protests on February 14, the anniversary of last year's demonstrations and crackdowns on the Pearl Roundabout, I am leaving more pessimistic.
This was my first trip to Bahrain in 18 years, since I lived in the tiny Persian Gulf island nation for a summer. Since that time, the development in Bahrain has been astounding. What once was a dusty backwater with a very limited amount of oil has seen massive development. Alas, this has not trickled down to the population—with its sectarian divisions—evenly. I am not one who believes wealth must be distributed equally; what disturbs me more is the opportunity gap.
Even members of the royal family acknowledge that opposition grievances are real, and some are perhaps more sincere in their desire for reform than many oppositionists realize. Others are not, however, and while some opposition parties are more secular and liberal, and others are more religiously-oriented, there seems to be a consensus which has formed that compromise is impossible. The opposition accuses security forces—often manned by non-Bahraini Arabs and those with origins in South Asia—with using tactics which have worsened the situation. Bahraini authorities acknowledge there has been torture; the opposition distrusts the declaration of both the government and its appointed commission that they will address the problem seriously.
The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg raises a number of questions regarding the assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, but also makes a number of assumptions which may not be warranted. First, his questions:
Of course, if the Iranian nuclear program is military in nature and the elements of the Iranian security services which would have custody, command, and control over a nuclear weapon hope to use it against Israel, then why get in a tit-for-tat now rather than simply concentrate on completing a program which will achieve the goal of killing Israelis a million-times-over?
Likewise, there is always the possibility the Iranians overstate their intelligence capabilities, while the Israelis downplay theirs. Then again, perhaps Goldberg is wrong to assume the Israelis—rather than an Arab intelligence service—are behind this. After all, the Mossad is a shadow of its former self and has long ago ceased being the most effective intelligence service in the Middle East, as recent boondoggles illustrate. As much as American officials view Arab Shi'ites as Fifth Columnists, perhaps we need to recognize that the Fifth Column can go both ways.
Engagement with Iran was Barack Obama's signature foreign policy issue. During the Democratic primaries, Obama promised to meet the leaders of Iran "without preconditions." Less than a week after taking office, Obama told al-Arabiya's satellite network, "If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us." Obama subsequently sent Iran's supreme leader two letters seeking dialogue.
Iran's leadership dismissed all of Obama's entreaties out of hand. When Obama waived preconditions, Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad asserted their own, not the least of which was an American withdrawal from the Persian Gulf. When the United States suggested opening an American diplomat-staffed visa office in Tehran, Iran's leadership said no. When the American Navy sought a hotline to defuse any crisis in the Persian Gulf, the Iranian government said that if the United States just left the region, then there would be no chance of a crisis.
If the Islamic Republic of Iran has one trait that worries me, it is overconfidence. After all, wars in the Middle East are caused not by oil or water, but rather by one side fundamentally underestimating the capacity of its adversary to respond. That was the case, for example, with the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War. After that conflict, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah commented that had he known how Israel would have reacted, he never would have launched the cross border operation to kidnap the Israelis in the first place.
Sometimes that overconfidence can have a silver-lining, however.
Several years ago, I penned a piece for The Wall Street Journal highlighting other revealing instances in which Iranian officials acknowledged their own insincerity. Alas, neither Iranian statements nor actions appear enough to force the State Department to face reality. Talk will not resolve the Iranian nuclear challenge. Rather, talk is a tactic the Iranians use—and now admit using—to run down the clock.
Muammar Qadhafi may have been captured alive in Sirte, but it wasn't long before his dead body was being paraded through the streets of Misrata, a town pulverized by Qadhafi loyalists. The United Nations is predictably demanding an investigation into his alleged summary execution by forces loyal to Libya's new government. The UN's outrage is misplaced, though. We should all be glad Qadhafi is dead.
International justice has become a multi-billion dollar industry in which trials last years and justice is seldom served. Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević died in prison more than four years after his trial began. Liberian dictator Charles Taylor first appeared before the Special Court for Sierra Leone on April 3, 2006; there is still no verdict. While Western diplomats believe a trial provides catharsis and allows for a new beginning, the opposite is actually true: Trials infect open wounds and seldom promote healing. True reconciliation requires beginning with a clean slate. Before his own death and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's capture, Hume Horan, the State Department's most talented Arabist of the past 50 years, spoke of the importance of seeing Saddam dead rather than on trial. "So long as his pug marks can be seen in the morning around our campfire, Iraqis will not sleep soundly," Horan wrote in a November 2003 email, adding, "He must be killed… We can pooh-pooh the likelihood of his ever making a comeback. But just that simple word 'comeback' must bring on a fainting spell for the likes of Governor [Iskandar] Witwit [of Hillah], who saw his brother's head hacked off in front of him."
The international justice industry should back off. It is too infected with its own agenda. When Saddam was captured and put on trial, Human Rights Watch (HRW) refused to provide the Iraqi prosecutors with evidence it had gathered about chemical attacks on Kurds unless the Iraqis agreed to waive capital punishment. HRW might believe they are enlightened, but Iraqis simply saw them for what they were: armchair imperialists.
Perhaps the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights wants to investigate the circumstances of Qadhafi's death; bureaucrats always want to feel relevant, and tilting at windmills is a UN pastime. But the first question he should ask is if his expensive quest will enable reconciliation or hamper it, and whether justice is best served by Westerners in three-piece suits, or by the Libyans themselves who have put a definitive end to their 42-year nightmare.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were both necessary and wise. The Clinton administration had mistakenly prioritized diplomacy over military action in its dealings with terrorists and their sponsors. Neither the 1993 World Trade Center attack nor Osama bin Laden's 1996 declaration of war on America led President Clinton to order reprisals. Al-Qaeda interpreted White House inaction as weakness and was encouraged to carry out further attacks, culminating with 9/11.
Liberals and libertarians may vilify President Bush and Vice President Cheney, but dictators and terrorists now think twice about attacking the United States. Killing Americans again has a cost.
No one should question the value of liberating 24 million Iraqis and nearly as many Afghans. They may not instantly become free but, as with President Truman's involvement in Korea, historians will recognize a wisdom that contemporaries did not. Bush deserves some credit for the Arab Spring as well. Arabs may have been critical of some U.S. actions, but Bush succeeded in changing the conversation: Arab publics began to discuss the meaning of democracy, accountability, and their achievement.
Still, it remains up to President Obama and the American public to confirm the value of the wars. Obama seems determined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, walking away from Iraq and promising a similar abandonment of Afghanistan, with little more than rhetorical support for the continued relationships upon which their further transformation depends.