Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Negotiations over Iran's Nuclear Program

In the United States, the two most serious newspapers for diplomatic coverage are the New York Times and the Washington Post. By accidents of history, there are two right wing newspapers of ill repute, the New York Post and the Washington Times. The New York Post is owned by Rupert Murdock, the billionaire conservative activist. The Washington Times is owned, last I checked, by Reverend Moon of Korea's Unification Church, a conservative cult organization. Both are more mouthpieces for the Republican party and conservative causes in general than reliable news sources.

The Washington Times recently broke a story that Iran is considering a secret suspension of its enrichment program. That the story was broken by the Times, not the New York Times but the Washington Times is interesting in itself. The US State Department, when it wants to talk to the press, even in confidence, uses the real papers, especially the New York Times.

My suspicion is that this leak is the work of the US pro-war faction, working to expose and invalidate the "secret" suspension and thereby prevent any agreement. On the other hand, a secret suspension does not fit my internal model of how the Iranians do things. It sounds more like an idea the Europeans came up with that the Iranians said they would consider.

It is an interesting idea though. The Iranian position is that Iran will not suspend enrichment before negotiations because if negotiations fail and Iran restarts enrichment then Iran will be worse off, purely in terms of its international image, than if it had not stopped at all. A secret suspension though, can overcome this because then Iran can claim it had never actually stopped enriching.

Iran is more likely to say it is pausing to retool, and then to actually work on the centrifuges during the suspension. Iran is a theocratic government and every theology condemns lying. But the goal may be one Iran can go along with which is a guarantee that if negotiations do not work, Iran will be able to return to where it is now, with no additional penalties.

That brings us to negotiations. Interestingly, Iran has never, ever called for negotiations with the United States over its nuclear program. The Europeans and the IAEA both insist that the US being at the table would have some cosmic significance. Iran has never agreed with that idea. This is a difference that deserves a closer look.

The Europeans claim that what they offered in August 2005 is the most they can offer for Iran to stop enrichment unless they get further agreement from the US. The June 2006 offer is essentially the same offer with the minor change that Iran is not explicitly asked to permanently renounce its ability to leave the NPT.

Other than that, the vague promise of improved trade with Europe, the airplane parts and the vague offer of European help in building nuclear power plants at some point in the future were all in the 2005 offer. Iran rejected the 2005 offer, taking the offer as a deliberate insult. The offer actually was an insult in that Europe went back on several aspects of the agreement that it reached with Iran to start negotiations in the first place. For example, Europe had agreed to find a formula with adequate additional safeguards so that Iran would be able to continue enriching uranium.

The US position is that it will not allow Europe to make a better offer until Iran suspends enrichment. There is no intrinsic link between what the US tells Europe it will accept and Iran suspending enrichment. So the US position is that it will not allow Europe to make a better deal. Period. But it wants Iran to suspend enrichment.

So other than the "secret" suspension, which is just packaging, Iran will not return to the table with Europe until Europe has expressed that, US or not, it is willing to accept Iran having domestic access to enrichment technology, or it is willing and able to commit to substantial compensation for Iran voluntarily foregoing this technology for a limited time. And Iran's voluntary withholding of this technology has to be presented as voluntary and subject to review as Iran's sovereign right.

Iran has a serious issue, if it has a nuclear program, of ensuring security of its fuel supply. Europe is insisting that Russia will provide a guaranteed supply - yet right now, as Europe is promising this, Russia is delaying both the completion of the Bushehr reactor and the delivery of TOR surface to air missiles due to US pressure. My mind boggles at this idea that Europe promises that the US will not successfully pressure Russia in the future, while Russia is succumbing to US pressure right now as Europe is promising this.

If Iran has a domestic enrichment program then Russia can shrug of US pressure by telling the Americans that the alternative is Iran making its own fuel. If Iran does not have the capability of making its own fuel then it will not agree to any guarantee other than enough fuel stored on Iranian soil that it would be able to get its own program running before it runs out.

One key disagreement to be resolved is what constitutes "substantial compensation". Signs are that Europe is willing to commit to terms that are better than the August 2005 offer before talks begin. But this has not been said out loud. Iran believes that if it had accepted the August 2005 offer, it would have suspended enrichment to see the Europeans offer nuclear plants at market price - or even higher - and trade discussions that would not have been much better than what Iran has now. While Europe would have taken steps towards Iran joining the WTO, those steps would have been worthless because the US would still continuously veto that.

Iran is probably right that it would have gotten nothing in return for accepting that agreement. North Korea never did get the light water reactors it was promised in 1993. Concrete hadn't poured in 2000 when Korea called that agreement off and resumed its nuclear program. In that case the US was openly saying that instead of implementing the agreement, it would rather just wait for North Korea to collapse.

So "carrots" may or may not be under negotiation as I write this. But no discussion about Iran's nuclear program is complete without at least a mention of the "stick" of sanctions that the US is waving.

Condoleeza Rice in an interview with the Wall Street Journal editorial board said that sanctions would not look like what the US would write unilaterally. But sanctions would have "collateral effects". Just how much different are the sanctions the US could get from the sanctions the US would write unilaterally? Here is a quote.

Now, to be absolutely fair, any such resolution will not look like a resolution that was written unilaterally by the United States. You can understand that. But it is also the case that a Security Council resolution which puts Iran under Article 41, Chapter 7 has collateral effects on the willingness of private companies, private banks, to do business with Iran. Because if you are making decisions which have a reputational component for instance and you’re facing making those decisions when a state is under Security Council resolutions, particularly Article 7 resolutions, that’s a different environment. And so I wouldn’t also underestimate the collateral effects of whatever resolution there is in the Security Council.

Russia claims it never committed to sanctions. It committed to "discuss" sanctions. The resolution as I read it does call for sanctions but if Russia says it only agreed to discuss, nobody can say Russia is wrong. But these sanctions wouldn't actually be sanctions. US officials keep saying travel restrictions are an example of sanctions. But another example of a "sanction" is a statement that "based on Chapter 7, section 41, the UNSC calls on member nations to refrain from giving Iran technology for use in a weapons program".

The second kind of "sanction" is not actually a sanction at all but it is probably what China and Russia agreed to. China insisted on that type of sanction against North Korea after North Korea's recent missile test. The US says sanctions would be escalating. China and Russia have never said they agree to that.

The US said it would press for a sanctions resolution shortly after the August 31 deadline passed. The US could get a resolution, but has decided that shooting a blank is worse than not firing at all. If the US could get even travel bans plus threats to escalate later, it would have gotten them in September.

We also do not know how committed Russia and China are even to the fake sanctions. Would they vote for sanctions, or would they just not veto sanctions? If Russia and China abstain, the non-permanent members have a good chance of voting down even fake sanctions on their own. If Venezuela joins the Security Council in October, which it expects, that possibility becomes much stronger.

The "stick" is fake sanctions. But that stick hurts the US more than it hurts Iran in this case. Fake sanctions that just barely pass the security council due to intense US pressure - which is the US best case scenario - would validate Iran's position in the eyes of the people Iran cares about.

As far as bombing, Iran does not have anything now to bomb. Even if Iran decides to build a bomb ten years from now, it will not use the facilities in Natanz. So bombing Natanz would cause a surge in popularity for Iran's regime, and allow Iran to leave the NPT and start a secret program with world approval but it would not decrease Iran's ability to build a bomb ten years from now.

Bombing would also strengthen Iran in both Iraq and Lebanon and kill a lot of US soldiers in Iraq in the process. Pro-US governments in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia would not fall that month, but straws keep piling on the camel's back. The back will break and the regimes will fall sooner or later. Iran is not in a rush.

Everyone outside the US has known for months that the US threat to bomb is a bluff. It is now becoming apparent that the US threat of sanctions is also a bluff.

I want to make a prediction, but I don't have a good idea of what Europe is willing to put onto the table. If Europe is saying it will give Iran reactors at half price, committing to them being operational by 2012 - with benchmarks for every 6 month period and penalties for missed benchmarks - and with a 5 year reserve of fuel on Iranian soil, along with European assistance in Iran's gas and oil products industries - also benchmarked - then Iran will accept the deal and announce that it is pausing its domestic nuclear enrichment program for five or ten years by the end of this year.

But Europe might be saying it agrees to help Iran with reactors in some way to be specified later, it will liberalize its trade relations in some way to be specified during negotiations and Iran's access to nuclear fuel will be "guaranteed" the same way nuclear fuel has previously been guaranteed and the way Iran's defensive missile shipments from Russia are guaranteed. If Europe is saying this, Iran will force the US to bring on the fiasco of fake sanctions. And have no doubt that the "sanctions" will be a fiasco and that Iran will emerge stronger than if the issue of sanctions had never been raised.

Like in Iraq, the US has painted itself into a corner with this talk of "sticks" against Iran. Iran would rather resolve the issue through negotiations, but would have no problem allowing Allah to cause the Global Arrogance to humiliate itself in Iran's favor on issue after issue.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Myth: Weak Prime Ministers in Iraq

We come across this from time to time. First Jaafari - the US objection to him was supposedly that he was too weak to restrain the militias. Now Maliki is another weak Iraqi Prime Minister. US officials in Baghdad are now wondering out loud to the press whether the US should support a traditional Arab strong man instead of these weak leaders.

The obvious solution to the militias and to insurgent forces is for them to be incorporated into the Iraqi army and put into their command structure. With everyone represented in Parliament and laws regarding political reconciliation with the Sunnis negotiated and passed this would provide Iraq with legitimate force and pose little to no risk of fighting against the government.

This army would not reliably flatten Fallujah or Tal Afar but with the entire political leadership opposed to death squads, it would reliably investigate and curtail those if they remained a problem.

Why not implement the obvious solution?

While these forces are loyal to the people who can actually get votes in Parliament, they are not loyal to the United States and people the United States likes but who cannot get votes in Parliament such as Allawi and Chalabi.

Which brings us back to the weak prime ministers.

The United States insists that these armed groups must be eliminated, not folded into the armed forces. The narrative now being presented is that Iraq's political leadership wants to eliminate the groups but are too weak. Hmmm.

The Shiites, if Iraq remains one country are going to have to live with the Sunnis long after the Americans are gone. Do they really want maximum confrontation with the insurgency and the civilian collateral destruction that means? Do they also want the forces that are already loyal to them disarmed in favor of Iraqi auxiliary units of the US occupation army?

Maybe they are actually telling the Americans in the Green Zone that they really wish they could dismantle every fighting force except the army but they find it impossible. Maybe the Americans in the Green Zone are hearing what they want to hear.

If only Iraq had "strong leaders" like Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But would any of them deny the US it's primary policy objective while their nation was occupied by the US?

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The US choosing an outcome for Iraq

The situation in Iraq will stabilize one way or another. What will the world be left with? Here are the possiblities:

1 - Anti-US stable unified country
The US probably could accomplish this in less than 1 year. This would be perceived as, depending on negotiations, between sub-optimal and bad for the Kurds. Of the other groups, it would be considered good if not optimal for the Shiites and nearly optimal for the Sunnis. Among outsiders it would be the fulfillment of a strategic fantasy for Iran, maybe the best possible case for Syria, the best possible case for Turkey tolerable at worst for the Saudis and a strategic complete defeat and nightmare for the US and Israel.

Accomplishing this scenario requires negotiations with the Kurds, but with the understanding that the Kurds' alternative is to be left alone to fight Turkey, Iran, Syria, the Sunnis and the Shiites. With that understanding the Kurds would be quite reasonable. The Shiites are honor-bound to ask for what the Kurds get, but that can be reasonable, not necessarily a partition of any kind.

The Iraqi parliament would end up with sovereignty over the entire country and, as is well known, would have Iran as its friendliest neighbor. The Iraqi parliament would not tolerate a US presence even in Kurdistan. Iran would be relatively free to use Iraqi companies to avoid sanctions, and would be able to reach Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait by land and would have safe overflight - which would make it easier to give cash and supplies to, for example Hezbollah and Hamas and to connect with groups in Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Saudi Arabia would likely come to an accomodation with Iran and begin weaning itself out of the pro-US camp.

The US and Israel cannot tolerate this scenario, though US official policy is essentially to advocate this scenario. If it was possible in the Middle East to further discredit US attempts to associate itself with democracy and any ideals other than support for Israel, the US would be so discrediting its ideals here.

This scenario is impossible - but only because the US has the will and ability to prevent it. If the US was willing to tolerate an anti-US but stable and democratic Iraq (and again, I understand that it is not) then this would be both the easiest and least bloody outcome to reach.

Other than Al-Qaeda, the United States and Israel, there are no parties in the Middle East that would consider this outcome a defeat.

2 - Pro-US stable unified country
The dream scenario for the US. Iran has a veto over this scenario, as do the Shiites and the Sunnis. Syria would also have to cooperate which it will not.

Iraq's voters, by rejecting Chalabi and Allawi have clearly said they oppose this outcome. There is no way at this point to reconcile this outcome with any semblance of democracy. The voters of Iraq do not have a veto over this scenario, but by voting against it, they have removed any moral support it could have.

The concern of those who oppose this scenario is that the US will try to implement it through a coup. Until that concern is addressed, by a US commitment to leave, all armed groups in Iraq will remain armed and all funders and supporters of Iraq's armed groups inside and outside of Iraq will continue to fund and support them.

It is commonly understood that this preferred outcome of the US can only be accomplished by a coup. The insurgency and militias as non-official military forces are the only thing that prevents the US-loyal army from turning against Iraq's voters, a la Algeria. Voluntarily disarming any of the unofficial armed groups while the US still controls the Iraqi army and plans to control it indefinitely cannot happen. If the US holds out the possibility of a prolonged occupation such as that of South Korea where the US ultimately commands both armies, there will be no voluntary disarmament of the non-official military forces.

When Khalizad and the US media speak of the "need" to disarm the militias I am forced to ask: "Are they joking?" Nobody but the US will see that "need" until they have a commitment that the US will leave.

The US strategy for reaching this scenario then is to outlast the Iraqis. The US has to really defeat all of the other militias and then it will be able to sponsor its coup and get its pro-US stable unified Iraq. It can even then order supervised elections without bothersome Iran-supported political parties and with Sistani out of politics. So there can be a pro-US, stable, unified, "democratic" Iraq. There are a lot of forces stacked against this outcome, including will of the majority of Iraqis.

With the amount of troops the US is able to devote to this, it is unlikely that this scenario can take hold.

3 - Divided Iraq - Two parts - US gets Kurdistan
The main obstacle to this scenario is the Shiites. Every moral and practical reason for the Kurds to leave Iraq is just as valid a reason for the Shiites to leave. The position that the size of confederations should be set at a maximum of 4 provinces is no different from a position that only ethnic groups whose name starts with "K" can form confederations. The Shiites are not going to buy it.

This is not a nightmare scenario for Iran by any means. Iran would still have the rich part of the country that has gulf access as its friend. Iran is probably pretty confident that it could reach an agreement with the Sunnis to "jointly" support Hezbollah and Hamas. A Kirkuk-Haifa pipeline would have to pass through Anbar. That is not going to happen whether Sadr, Hakim or Hussein loyalists make the decision.

The landlocked US forces in Kurdistan would be less vulnerable to Iranian reprisals for any strike but the Saudi oil installations would be more vulnerable. Pretty good trade for Iran.

This is a nightmare scenario for Turkey - a situation that in the long term has a high probability of breaking Turkey apart and will at minimum vastly worsen Turkey's Kurdish terrorism problem.

This is not a good scenario for the US, but I wonder if the US thinks it is. This scenario would result in fighting over Kirkuk and Turkey may enter more vehemently than it has so far. Iran and Turkey will certainly jointly act against Kurdish rebels. The US can only hope this cooperation does not begin to extend to other areas. And it better do some good hoping because very few things are as strategically detrimental to Turkey in the long term as a wealthy Kurdistan that supports the Kurds in Turkey.

4 - Divided Iraq - Three parts - Somehow done peacefully
If the Kurds get their own slice of Iraq, with oil, then the Shiites are not going to share with the Sunnis. Iran doesn't care either way. Sadr, in Baghdad with the Sunnis and without his own oil does not want a division. Hakim, far from the Sunnis with his own oil would be richer without the Sunnis and the Sunnis can have Sadr too for all Hakim cares.

If there is going to be a split, and Hakim, the leader of SCIRI, has anything to say, the Shiites will get the exact same deal the Kurds get.

The problem is that Kirkuk and Baghdad have to be divided. I imagine it is possible to sit down and negotiate this. The Sunnis and Sadr oppose it on principle and would have to be compensated. But they still will not disarm voluntarily unless they have assurances that the US is leaving. If the US continues to refuse to provide those assurances dividing those cities in the midst of armed militias is much more difficult if not impossible.

Iran, still would be perfectly happy with this. Both the Sunni and Shiite sections are reliable anti-US countries. Iran would be still able to ship by ground to Syria, still able to stop any pipelines to Israel.

The Kurds would have as neighbors, Iran, Sunni Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Any US commitment to the Kurds could get very expensive to fulfill, and everybody would know it, including the Kurds and the US.

The Arab world would be livid at the dismemberment of an Arab country. They would blame the US and say it was done for the strategic benefit of Israel. Let's not be too quick to cry anti-semitism. Israeli thinkers have publically called for the breakup of Arab states to reduce the threat they pose to Israel. Serious thinkers in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia would ask "are we next?" The US would hope that those countries do not go to China, Russia and Iran asking for assurances against any possible US plans against them.

5 - Civil War - Iraq may end up intact or may not
The good news for the US is that it gets to stay until the war is over if it wants. The bad news is that in the meantime US soldiers will be dying and eventually it will be all over, and everyone involved will still be at least as anti-US as they are now.

As long as the US is there, there are no ground shipments from Iran to Syria and it is a little more difficult than it will be after the US leaves for Iran to reach Iraq's other neighbors. The US can put itself in charge of enforcing any UN sanctions against Iran, if they actually happen.

The best news for the US is that in this scenario Iraq is a disintegrating anti-US state, instead of a developing anti-US state. There is a solid argument that this is the best possible scenario for the US that the US can actually accomplish. Khalizad is far too smart not to know that the US is guaranteeing this scenario by refusing to tell the Iraqis that the US will be completely unable to interfere in Iraq's military by a committed time.

This is not a terrible scenario for Iran. As long as the US troops are there, Iran can threaten to kill more if Iran are attacked. Influencing Iraq's neighbors is a slower process for Iran, but Iran has plenty of time. Meanwhile the chaos in Iraq is a public relations gift to Iran that keeps on giving.

Turkey can live with this as long as it believes in the end there will not be an independent Kurdistan.

This scenario gives Syria leverage with the US and validates its anti-Western orientation.

The US allies, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are all disappointed that the US didn't choose one of the less bloody options. Eventually that disappointment will contribute to one of the allies renouncing the alliance, but that is far in the future. In the meantime, this just exacerbates the gap between these countries and their populations.

This is the worst scenario by far for the people of Iraq.

The US is on some level deliberately forcing all of the Iraq-related actors to choose between a civil war or a situation where the US is able to enforce pro-US policies in Iraq by an Algeria-style coup if necessary.

Given the choice between civil war now or submit to the US in order to postpone a possible later civil war - in this situation where the decision has to be made by the armed militias themselves - I expect many of the actors to choose civil war now.

The Iraqis are not going any where. It is impossible to outlast them. Eventually the US will leave and maybe ten years from now, the Iraqis will get the anti-US, pro-Iran government they elected in 2005.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Myth: Rivalry Between Shiites and Sunnis Part II

Pew Global Attitudes Report:

Oppose or favor Iran acquiring Nuclear Weapons
US: 92% oppose, 3% favor
China: 52% oppose, 18% favor
Egypt: 42% oppose, 44% favor
Jordan: 42% oppose, 45% favor

Agree that Iran is a "great danger" to world peace
US: 46%
France: 31%
China: 22%
Jordan: 19%
Turkey: 16%
Egypt: 14%

I think this should be enough. The idea that Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have populations that feel intense rivalries with Iran because the Iranians are Shiite and/or Persian was ridiculous from the start.

Myth: Iran's Leadership is Despised by Its Population

This one should fold to a simple poll. Fortunately Reader's Digest and Zogby have produced one.

14. Would you like to see Iran's society become more secular and liberal, more religious and conservative or just stay as it is?

More secular and liberal: 30.7%
More religious and conservative: 36.0%
Just stay as it is: 15.0%
No answer: 18.3%

Leaving out people who don't answer, 62% of Iranians who have an opinion either want Iran to become more religious or to stay as it is.

Where do these stories about an overwhelming majority of Iranians eagerly awaiting the opportunity to establish a regime amenable to the Middle East interests of the United States come from? Two places - the first is wishful thinking and the second is sampling error - Iranians who travel and especially Iranian exiles really do despise the clerical regime.

Somebody estimated for Juan Cole that "only some 15-20 percent [of Iranians] support their religious, populist government" and Mr. Cole believed it.

Of people who expressed an opinion, only 18% of Iranians in this poll believe the Iranian society is "just right" but that is grossly misleading since another 42%, twice that many, think Iran's religious leaders should have more influence on Iranian society.

Unlike the dictatorships of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the Iranian clerics do not disagree with their people either on Israel or on their nation's rightful place in the Middle East.

18: Level of Agreement: The state of Israel is illegitimate and should not exist
Str disagreement: 3.9%
2: 4.5%
3 (neutral): 21.1%
4: 14.6%
Str agreement: 51.9%

17: Level of Agreement: Iran should play the dominant economic and military role in the Middle East region:
Str disagreement: 4.4%
2: 7.9%
3 (neutral): 29.5%
4: 24.8%
Str agreement: 31.1%

I will point out that believing the state of Israel should not exist is no worse than Africans believing the state of Apartheid South Africa should not exist or Ronald Reagan believing the USSR should not exist. There is no implication that every Jew or citizen of Israel should be killed or removed any more than opponents of South Africa advocated the murder or dislocation of all Whites or Ronald Reagan advocated the murder or dislocation of all Russians.

The policies pursued by Iran's leaders, especially the policies Westerners have a problem with, are not unpopular with Iranians.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Myth: There is a plan to bring down Lebanon's government

I've seen this one place, at syriacomment.

Another story that has been circulating in the Arab press is that Syria, Iran and Hizbullah have a three step plan to bring down the Lebanese government with the help of General Aoun and other anti-Hariri politicians. The basic idea is: Stage one, stay cool while Israel withdraws its troops. Stage two, create paralysis in the government by opposing all Siniora measures. Stage three, begin large scale demonstrations which will give cover for special inciters to provoke clashes with the police and get people shot. Then push for a vote of no-confidence in parliament and force new elections. The only source quoted in this story is a "high placed" government official. There can be little doubt that opposition figures in Lebanon and their supporters further a field are strategizing to bring down the Hariri coalition that presently governs Lebanon, and which many have already accused of being complicit with Israel and the US during the war. Whether this is their plan is hard to say, but it is hard to think of a different plan.

I don't expect this plan to be followed, instead more like Stage 1: Lay low while Israel pulls out. (This stage is easy because they really are laying low already) Stage 2: Hold talks to implement the end of non-national militias in Lebanon. Stage 2A: Of course this means also giving Shiites full suffrage, instead of 40% of the population having 20% of the vote. Stage 3: The Shiites establish themselves as the permanent government of all of Lebanon and fold Hezbollah into the army.

This is all just guessing. It will be obvious in six months which plan is being followed though. I'll admit if I was wrong.

See, just as 9/11 radicalized the contemporary US government, the July/August War radicalized the Lebanese government in place. Nasrallah can't feel any strong urge to replace parliament immediately because everyone agrees with him now.

Remember the surge of support Hezbollah got in Lebanese polls? The Lebanese Parliament are Lebanese too. They felt the same surge, if not more because members of government are often more patriotic than the general population.

This ties to just how poorly Israel has been conducting foreign policy since at least July. Unbelievably, I am led to believe Israel thought that hurting Lebanese civilians would turn them against Hezbollah. The blockades and destruction of bridges all through the country made the Lebanese mad, but of course they were mad at Israel.

The war was really started by a border skirmish in which Israeli soldiers were captured and killed. Nobody in Lebanon believes Israel had no choice but to destroy the airport. Israel chose to escalate and everyone in Lebanon blames Israel for that decision.

I didn't predict that Israel would fail to advance by land into Lebanon when the attack first happened, but it became obvious to a lot of people when the first town was captured, then recaptured, then never had been an objective at all. By that time, Israeli soldiers on Lebanese soil were just an exercise in stupidity.

I'd say the dumbest move though was maintaining the air and sea blockades after the cease fire. At that point the only way to get goods in was through Syria. Of course Syria and its Lebanese allies would not back down from that "threat", the threat to make Lebanon more dependent on Syria. If it was up to Syria, Israel would impose a permanent blockade. All Israel has done this summer is turned the population and government further and more permanently against Israel towards Syria and Iran.

That leads us back to the government. In 2005 it was relatively pro-Western. Today it is not. Nasrallah does not have to pull the trigger and bring down the government. There is a long term realignment in the works that is so favorable to the Shiites that Hezbollah can afford to be magnanimous.

Myth: There is a serious rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites

What nonsense. How amazing that it even has to be addressed.

Just to start, the mostly Sunni people of Egypt were polled and they claim to respect three different leaders more than they respect their own president Mubarak. Nasrallah of Hezbollah, Meshal of Hamas and Ahmadinejad of Iran. Two radical Shiites are on that list. It is as if US "racists" respected Nelson Mandela and Julius Nyerere more than they respected Ronald Reagan. I wish that was enough to put this myth to rest.

But there are two opposing data points. One is the civil war in Iraq and the other is statements by the Sunni pro-US dictatorships. Those data points have to be accounted for.

About the civil war. I want to explain how it would be possible to create the same civil war in the United States.

Let's say China invaded and conquered Michigan. Let's say the Chinese proclaim that their intention is just to give the people of Michigan an enlightened Socialist government that provides more justice than they currently have. But let's say the Chinese also while they are there insist on having a say in how cars from Michigan are sold.

Here is the whole key. The Chinese will destroy the legitimate opposition forces - the army and the police - because those forces will never be loyal to the Chinese and they are easy to trace. But the resistance will continue because the people of Michigan will not accept the Chinese. New legitimate opposition forces will form.

Here is the real key. These new legitimate opposition forces will from from the nucleii of what before the invasion were marginal, illegitimate and even illegal groups. When the Crips were a street gang, they had nearly no popular support. When they become one of very few groups actually fighting the Chinese they get access to resources and legitimacy that they never had. When the Michigan Militia was a fringe band of wackos out on farms, they had almost no support. When they are one of few groups actually fighting the Chinese they get access to resources and legitimacy that they never had.

So now you have Crips and Michigan Militia armed, legitimate, flooded with money and in their minds and the hearts of many in the population proven right. A lot of times there will not be Chinese invaders to kill. What will a new Militia member do when after being indoctrinated he sees an interracial couple but there are no Chinese to kill? What will a Crip do when there are no Chinese in sight, but he sees a white man who looks just like that cop who set him up before the invasion?

It is very easy to get these groups fighting each other - even without active Chinese infiltration. (Of course the Chinese would have to be morons to not pay some stooges a little money to discredit the resistance.) Once they start fighting, the fighting may even spiral to the point where the fighting continues after the Chinese leave.

The punchline is that the fighting is not caused by ancient hatreds. It is not the inevitable result of the old Michigan government being overthrown. Marginal groups who were not actively fighting each other before start fighting each other because suddenly extreme groups that did not have resources become legitimate in mainstream thought and get resources.

Sunnis and Shiites before the invasion in Iraq were intermarrying, they were being friends for years and never asking to which group they belonged. Marginal and radical former fringe groups have been demarginalized. That is where the civil war comes from. If the US wanted the war to end as its primary goal, it would announce a timetable, leave and thereby delegitimize these groups.

But would China really invade a state that was not having a civil war with a primary goal of preventing a civil war? There are a lot of myths around the US motivation to invade and remain in Iraq that I hope to address in later articles.

The second data point is the statements by the dictators of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Unpopular dictators are easy to threaten. Nobody can argue that these dictatorships do not feel threatened by Iran. Unlike Iran, whose regime does have popular support (I know, I'll get to the myth that they do not later), a determined outside force that advocates regime change in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia would be a problem.

Do you want to read something funny? This is from the Robert Kaplan of the Wall Street Journal via Syriacomment.

The president may need to pull closer to the Saudi royals, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah. Weakened by America's response to 9/11, terrified by Israeli incompetence in defending their interests in Lebanon, these regimes still demonstrate more enlightenment than their populations. They fear Iran more than do the Europeans.

If you didn't laugh out loud at that then never read anything else I write. Sorry for wasting your time but we don't have enough in common to communicate.

But if you did laugh out loud it is because for some reason Kaplan cannot admit to himself that Iran is not actually a threat to the populations. It is a threat to the unpopular authoritarian dictatorships that have formed an alliance of convenience with the United States and indirectly with Israel.

The thing is that if Iran was not Shiite it would be the exact same threat to these dictatorships that it is now. Anyone who would say the Egyptian people should have a say in Egypt's foreign policy are a threat to Mubarak. It doesn't matter if it is the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood or the Shiite Hezbollah. There is a real rivalry between states in the Middle East led by legitimate governments and states that are not. But this only happens to align with any Sunni Shiite split.

Talk of this supposed rivalry are nonsense. It would be nice for the US if it was true but it just is not.

I will consider myself proven wrong if any poll produces the result that any non-Israeli population in the Middle East considers Iran more of a threat than either the US or Israel. This includes the Sunnis of Iraq which is probably the most anti-Iranian population on Earth outside of the US and Israel. If the Sunnis of Iraq, or anyone else, in a poll consider Iran more of a threat than the US and Israel then I have to retract this entire post.

Introduction to Middle East Reality


Most people in the West do a very poor job empathizing with people in the Middle East outside of Israel.

Part racism, - not all racism but part and it serves no purpose to deny that - part cognitive dissonance, part wishful thinking there may be many reasons. But most commentators consistently get the region wrong. Not just the idiots like Tom Friedman, but even the smart people like Juan Cole and Billmon over at Whiskey Bar.

In this blog, I hope to one by one dissect the many myths held by too many commentators. There is no serious rivalry between Shiite and Sunni per se; Iran has no interest in either an Iraqi civil war or an Iranian satellite in Iraq; The United States and Israel have no interest in avoiding an Iraqi civil war if the alternative is the democratic government the Iraqis voted for; The Iranian regime is not despised by 70% or more of Iranians. Things like that.

One thing I plan to do is make predictions so that it will be possible to test my beliefs against other published beliefs about the Middle East. Whereever it is possible to use polling data I always will. I wish the people of the Middle East were polled as often as people in a contentious region of this importance should be polled and I wish these polls were made more available in English but alas, there will be times when no poll data is available. All I'll be able to do in that case is guess - but we'll see how I do.

OK. Let's get started.