Archive for the ‘Iran’ Category

U.S. ‘Gaining Ground’ on Arab Street

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

President Barack Obama’s overtures to the Arab world are working.

That, according to an important new report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a powerful D.C.-based think tank devoted to a strong U.S.-Israel alliance.

Several new polls suggest that the United States is gaining ground in the Arab street, and that President Barack Obama’s latest overtures, specifically his June 4 speech in Cairo, were well received by some important Arab constituencies … Students of Arab public opinion would regard these numbers as surprisingly encouraging. In contrast, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad’s popularity has slipped dramatically in the Arab world … Approximately half of the Arabs questioned even agree that “if Iran does not accept new restrictions and more international oversight of its nuclear program, the Arabs should support stronger sanctions against Iran around the end of this year.”

(You can read the full report here.)

The report notes that these marked shifts in public attitudes provide a “window of opportunity,” in which Arab governments, fearful of a dominant Iran, will be increasingly receptive to cooperating with the United States. It argues that the Obama administration “should accelerate and publicize defensive military cooperation with friendly Arab countries.” And it concludes that the U.S. should continue trying to engage Iran, while at the same time actively enlisting broader Arab support for sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

Which is to say that, despite the loud naysayers on the right, President Obama’s bold outreach to the Arab world is already paying crucial dividends.

It should be noted that the Washington Institute is not by any means a left-leaning think tank. Its board members range across the political spectrum (from former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, Lawrence Eagleburger and Warren Christopher, to Martin Peretz, editor in chief of the New Republic, a staunch pro-Israel hawk). According to SourceWatch, the Institute burst on the scene in 1988 with a paper urging that the U.S. “resist pressures for a procedural breakthrough (on Palestinian-Israeli peace issues) until conditions have ripened” — a report that was extremely influential in the George H.W. Bush administration.

G-8 Tightens Timetable on Iran

Friday, July 10th, 2009

Talk about a swing and a miss.

Coming out of the G-8 talks in Italy, much of the media seems intent on arguing that the summit didn’t go far enough on the issue of a nuclear Iran. See, for example, Time: “The G-8 Speaks Softly on Iran’s Nuclear Program.”

This completely ignores the fact that Russia, which in the past has been the stumbling block to a united front against Iran, signed on to what President Barack Obama today described as “a strong statement calling on Iran to fulfill its [nuclear non-proliferation] responsibilities without delay.”

And there seems to be a bigger, more fundamental point that the media is totally missing.

In May, when Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu met President Barack Obama in the White House, Obama said that while he would try to engage Iran, he wouldn’t do it indefinitely, saying the Islamic Republic had until the end of the year to respond on its nuclear program. At the time, the New York Post said the two leaders “agreed an aggressive timetable is needed to deal with Iran’s nuclear intentions.”

That timetable just got a whole lot more aggressive. The leaders of the G-8 nations, with Russia’s assent, said they would “take stock” of the situation again at another international meeting in Pittsburgh in just two months.

As Politico reported:

“What that does is provides a time frame,” Obama said. If Iran does not take up offers to resume talks over its nuclear program, “you have on record the G-8 to begin with [and] potentially a lot of other countries that are going to say you need to take further steps …”

Obama said a ‘door’ is open to Iran, but he warned that the patience of the world community is finite. “We’re not going to just wait indefinitely and allow for the development of nuclear weapons in breach of international treaties and wake up one day and find ourselves in a much worse situation and unable to act.”

As I write this, Haaretz is running an AP article on its homepage headlined: “Obama: U.S. Won’t Allow Iran to Develop Nukes.”

Here’s the lead:

U.S. President Barack Obama said Friday the world would not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, a day after a senior Iranian official vowed his country would not back down “even one step” over its nuclear work …

“I think the real story here was consensus in that [G8] statement, including Russia, which doesn’t make statements like that lightly,” [Obama] said. “Now the other story there was the agreement that we will reevaluate Iran’s posture towards negotiating the cessation of a nuclear weapons policy.”

“We’ll evaluate that at the G20 meeting in September.”

Despite what Time says, I imagine the clerical leaders of Iran hear the message loud and clear.

The Time is Right for Obama to Visit Israel

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

Reading the Akron Beacon Journal today, I came across this headline: “Obama tries to win over skeptical Russians.”

After reaching out to the Islamic world in speeches in Turkey and Egypt, President Barack Obama sought once more to speak directly to the hearts and minds of another audience that has been hostile to the United States: the Russian public. …

Just as the president sprinkled his speeches in the Middle East with references to the Quran and partnership with the Muslim world, Obama spoke knowledgeably to Russians about issues close to their hearts.

It was vintage Obama, reaching out directly to the people, speaking honestly — “he quietly criticized Russia’s increasingly authoritarian politics and aggressive foreign policy — without lecturing or accusing the Kremlin” — and earning their trust.

Several times, Obama made references that might sound like platitudes anywhere else — but which struck a powerful chord with Russians.

It’s time that Obama went to Israel, and made the same kind of appeal to skeptical Jews.

I understand why he didn’t start with Israel. Obama has reached out first to those — in Iran, the Arab world, and Russia — who are most suspicious of the United States and its foreign policy, after eight years of tough talk and sabre-rattling by George Bush. That makes sense.

Now, though, he has an Israel problem. According to a recent Jerusalem Post Poll — much discussed and emailed in the Jewish community — only 6 percent of Jewish Israelis consider Obama pro-Israel. A whopping 50 percent believe he is pro-Palestinian — up from only 14 percent in May.

This, about a president who went to Cairo — the heart of the Muslim world — and declared that America’s bond with Israel “is unbreakable.”

Clearly, there is a growing credibility gap.

There’s an article in Haaretz today by Aluf Benn, who I’m not prone to agree with, but who makes a good point. Benn notes that while many Israelis might actually support a settlement freeze, when Obama called for exactly that, absolutely no one on the political left in Israel sided with him over Netanyahu. One reason, Benn writes, is that:

Obama did not try to communicate with the Israeli public and convince them that freezing settlements will be an important and positive step to contribute to peace and a better future. Obama addressed the Arabs and Muslims, but not the Israelis.

For the Obama administration, it’s not just an issue of assuaging the Israeli public, and thus making American Jews feel better. If the Israeli public understood they had a true friend in the White House, a large segment might line up behind Obama, increasing pressure on their prime minister to compromise on settlements and other tough, intractable issues coming down the pike.

The other day, a U.S. Congressman with unassailable pro-Israel and pro-Obama credentials put it this way: “[The Israeli] public needs to be predisposed to follow” the United States’ lead on peace talks.

The best way for that to happen is for Obama to go to the Jewish homeland and speak to Israelis directly, honestly, and from the heart.

Obama Persuades Russia on Iran

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

The first day of President Barack Obama’s trip to Russia yielded an important agreement between Cold War foes to cut their strategic nuclear arsenals by at least a quarter.

That’s important — not only because, as The New York Times reported, it’s “a first step in a broader effort intended to reduce the threat of such weapons drastically and to prevent their further spread to unstable regions.” It’s also important for the security of Israel.

Prior to leaving for Moscow, Obama reiterated that Iran has a short window of opportunity — the “coming weeks and months” — to show it is serious about responding to his overtures for talks, or else face sanctions. Sanctions, though, have little teeth if Russia and China are not on board. As Zvi Bar-el wrote in Haaretz last September: “Iran assumes Russia and China will continue to protect it from embargoes.”

President Obama also said, as the Times reported, “the United States now has more leverage to pressure Iran because he had succeeded in getting ‘countries like Russia and China to take these issues seriously.'”

Flash-forward a day, and we already see tangible evidence of that success.

“After hours of meetings at the Kremlin,” the Times writes, “the presidents agreed to conduct a joint assessment of any Iranian threat and presented a united front against the spread of nuclear weapons.”

The paper continues:

Mr. Obama hailed the arms agreement as an example for the world as he pursued a broader agenda aimed at countering — and eventually eliminating — the spread of nuclear weapons, a goal he hopes to make a defining legacy of his presidency.

While the United States and Russia together have 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, Mr. Obama also views Russia as an influential player in deterring nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.

“This is an urgent issue, and one in which the United States and Russia have to take leadership,” Mr. Obama said. “It is very difficult for us to exert that leadership unless we are showing ourselves willing to deal with our own nuclear stockpiles in a more rational way.”

Mr. Medvedev expressed willingness to help fight the proliferation of nuclear weapons in places like Iran and North Korea. “It’s our common, joint responsibility, and we should do our utmost to prevent any negative trends there, and we are ready to do that,” Mr. Medvedev said.

And the U.S. president is giving the Russians every incentive to follow through. As Haaretz reports:

Obama, on a visit to Moscow on Tuesday, called for the United States and Russia to overcome Cold War mistrust and forge a true global partnership, saying that the U.S. wouldn’t need to deploy a missile defense system in Europe, a move Russia opposes, if Russia helped to bring the Iranian nuclear threat to an end. 

“If the threat from Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile program is eliminated, the driving force for missile defense in Europe will be eliminated,” Obama said in remarks prepared for delivery to graduates from Moscow’s New Economic School. 

If President Obama didn’t look into Medvedev’s eyes and see his soul, it may be because he’s more focused on a geopolitical strategy for regional stability — with Israel as a prime beneficiary.

A Final Thought on Norm Coleman

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

In the end, Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman bowed out powerfully, turning political defeat into education.

“Ours is a government of laws, not men and women,” he said, conceding yesterday to Al Franken. “The Supreme Court of Minnesota has spoken, and I respect its decision and will abide by the result. It’s time for Minnesota to come together under the leaders it has chosen and move forward. I join all Minnesotans in congratulating our newest United States senator — Al Franken.”

I know this is the kind of thing people say, when they lose elections in this country. But, still, there’s something about Coleman’s formulation — pointing out the primacy of law over the individual — that really moved me, particularly now, when, half-way around the word, a different country has told its people, at the barrel of a gun: Ours is a government of men, not laws.

Coleman is a an observant Jew. Of all the things I read during the protracted fight for the Minnesota Senate seat, the most indelible image might have been this one, from an April article in the New York Times:

[Coleman] said that every morning, he puts tefillin — black leather boxes containing scrolls — on his arm as part of a morning Jewish prayer ritual. “I bind myself every morning,” he said. “I bind myself to God every morning because it’s in his hands.”

I have almost nothing in common with Coleman, politically. Among other things, he has been a strategic advisor and consultant for the Republican Jewish Coalition, the political archenemy of the National Jewish Democratic Council, on whose board I serve. But over the last few months, I’ve started putting on tefillin, too — once a week. It’s a powerful but strange ritual, one that political leaders rarely speak openly about.

“David Letterman will make fun of me for this,” Coleman said, after revealing his religious practice.

Maybe. But I appreciated Coleman’s candor. Like his concession speech, it took a certain amount of courage.

Life is a Bridge

Friday, June 26th, 2009

I saw something this morning that at first confused me, then hit me in the guts.

I opened my New Yorker, turned to “Letter from Tehran: With the Marchers,” and noticed right away that there was no byline. I flipped ahead a few pages — was it at the end of the piece? — then back to the contributor’s page. The author of every other article was listed, along with a brief bio, but not this one.

Odd, I thought. In a magazine like the New Yorker, the author — what they do; what they’ve written — is almost always part of the point.

As I started reading, it became clear that the author was Iranian — knew it intimately enough to make observations like this, about two protesters:

Everything I have seen of Reza and Hengameh tells me that they are true democrats—for example, the relaxed way they have brought up their teen-age son, Mohsen. “We never obliged him to say his prayers or observe the Ramadan fast,” Reza told me once, “and now he does both, of his own accord.”

And it quickly became clear why the article was written anonymously:

On June 14th, two days after the election that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is alleged to have stolen from his main challenger, the reformist Mir-Hossein Moussavi, I hurried back to Iran from a trip abroad. The next day, the day of the AzadiStreet march, I had lunch with a journalist friend. In view of the election fiasco and the coverage that it had received abroad, my friend told me, the authorities were now trying to curtail the activities of the Western media. “If you want to write for a foreign magazine,” he said, “do it without a byline.” The authorities were refusing to extend the visas of most visiting foreign journalists; several Iranian journalists had been thrown in jail.

I blogged yesterday that “I (HEART) the Media“; this New Yorker article is another demonstration of why. Among other things, it contains the first anecdotal accounts I’ve seen that expose the election results as a sham. Who needs British think tanks, international monitors, or statisticians when you have this:

A change had also come over Mohsen, their son. The last time we met, he had been a typical teen-ager, sulky and monosyllabic. Now Mohsen seemed fully grown, an adult, and he participated enthusiastically in our conversation, which inevitably revolved around politics and the marches. Mohsenhad been active in Yussefabad on behalf of the local Moussavi campaign, standing on street corners and handing out leaflets. He had also run the Basiji gantlet, and had the bruises on his knees to prove it.

“Are you sure the election was a fraud?” I asked him.

Mohsen smiled ruefully. “Some of the boys from the campaign headquarters were at the local count, and when they came back that evening they were laughing and saying it was all over—Ahmadinejad had no chance. Then . . .” Mohsen shrugged, and his father said, “You should have seen this neighborhood. There was hardly a single Ahmadinejad poster. Only green. Only green! Of course it was a fraud. They stole the vote.”

The article makes the point that the protestors are not, as Ahmadinejad seems to want people to believe, limited to students and the educated class. Protestors are cut from a broad swath of society.

But to my mind, one of the most powerful moments in the piece is this one, near the end:

Ever since I’d known Reza, he’d made a point of not having a satellite dish on his roof. He distrusted the foreign television channels, and was content to watch Iranian state TV. During the recent election campaign, however, as state television praised Ahmadinejad endlessly, he had found it difficult to watch; it made him feel physically sick. He bought a satellite dish, so that the family can now watch the BBC’s Persian channel—or, at least, when it isn’t jammed. “It has shown us that everything we have been watching here, most of our lives, is full of lies,” he said.

“Give me an example,” I said, and he replied, “You know what they said on TV about yesterday’s march? They could hardly pretend it never happened, because it was all over the foreign channels and the Internet. So they announced that the rally had been organized by all four Presidential candidates, including Ahmadinejad, in the name of national unity!”

He said, “You can imagine what all this is doing to my father.” Reza’s father was a mid-level bureaucrat before his retirement, a few years ago. He adored Khomeini. He would have given his life for the Iranian Revolution. “You know what he said to me after he heard about the seven people who were shot last night? He said, ‘I regret everything I’ve done in my life.’ ”

Imagine, having such a misguided view of the world.

And yet …

I blogged the other day about how one remarkable aspect of this revolution for me, personally, is that it has — in one mighty swoop — transformed Iran from a nation of Jew hating evil-doers, into a nation of people. I’ve obviously never met Mohsen, but the description of him — its uncanny — it reminds me of my cousin Nate (“standing on street corners and handing out leaflets”), who worked his tail off in and around the streets of Philadelphia to elect Barack Obama.

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Jon Stewart, for instance, sent Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones to Iran, prior to the election. Jones met a an elderly gentleman who knew the U.S. presidents, going back to Carter. He played American football on a grassy lawn with a group of kids. He interviewed a fashionista wearing Dolce & Gabbana and Adidas sneakers. (“Ah-dee-das?” Jones deadpanned.) A good-looking, flirty young couple admitted they were Daily Show watchers. (“Heh heh heh,” the guy said, imitating Jon Stewart’s imitation of George Bush.)

As it ended last night, Jason Jones — who went to cover the election, and wound up covering a revolution — said this:

“But as I watch what’s happening there now, I know that somewhere in that sea of faces are the same people I met. People who were gracious enough to take me into their homes, and schools, and coffee shops. People who indulge my asinine questions. People I hope will be safe, and not be harmed or arrested for the simple act of wearing green and wanting a voice.”

I watched, waiting for the punch line. But there was none. Not a trace of irony or sarcasm or mockery to be found. This, from the least sentimental reporter on the least sentimental television show in history.

“[You] spent ten days in Iran,” Jon Stewart told him, in studio, “and came back with amazing work and amazing pictures that revealed a certain part of Iran that I think many of us had never seen before.”

Last night, on my way home from a class about the Jewish thinker Soloveitchik, I called my dad to see how he was doing with my mom, who is recovering from a stroke.

“She’s a tiger,” he said, speaking about her will to get better.

One of the things my dad has always told us, in the tough times, is: “Life zigs and zags.” Last night, I told my dad that near the end of one of Soloveitchik’s works, one of the most brilliant theologians of our time concludes: “Man moves toward the fulfillment of his destiny along a zig-zag line.”

“All those years,” I told him. “You were really onto something.”

“Yeah,” he said, laughing, then quickly added: “And also, ‘Life is a bridge.'”

“Life is a bridge?” I said.

“”You don’t remember?”

“No,” I said.

So he began again:

Once upon a time, he said, there was a very wealthy man, determined to understand the meaning of life. He travelled far and wide, spending down his fortune, trying to figure out the answer. And then, one day, he learned of a Seer, a recluse, living high in the Mongolian Hills. The man began a long journey, spending his every last dime, searching for this wisest of men, until one day, high on the top of a mountain overlooking the whole of China, weak and hungry and depleted from his trek, the man finally found the Seer.

“Sir,” he said, “I’ve journeyed for months, spent my last dime to find you. Can you please tell me the meaning of life?”

The Seer looked out at the snow-capped peaks, closed his eyes. “Life,” he said, “is a bridge.”

“That’s it?” the man said. “Life’s a bridge?”

The Seer opened his eyes, looked up at the man, and said: “Life isn’t a bridge?”

Tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of Iranians have learned this in the past few weeks.

And so have we.

What Will Obama’s Critics Say Now?

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

What can we expect from President Barack Obama’s critics, now that he has harshly condemned Iran’s violent crackdown on those protesting the election?

1. They will say he has not gone far enough. Why did he only “strongly condemn” the “unjust actions.” Why not “unhesitatingly denounce” or “full-throatedly repudiate” or “unequivocally damn.” And, come to think of it, why did he stop at “unjust actions”? Why not “evil barbarities”? And why refer to the country as “Iran”? Why not “The Persian Devil”?

Really, they will say. Does “appalled and outraged” even scratch the surface, when President Obama could have said the United States is “seething with apocalyptic fury”?

2. They will say he did not speak up soon enough — ignoring the fact that people from former secretary of state Henry Kissinger to conservative columnist David Brooks to some of the world’s foremost Iranian experts have called Obama’s response exactly right, noting that aligning too strongly with the demonstrators will play right into the hands of the corrupt regime.

3. They will compare his response to Jimmy Carter’s response to the hostage crisis. (Really! They already are!) Because the taking of American hostages is the same thing as a disputed Iranian election.

4. They will say Obama’s response was not sincere. Because they were not in the room when the reporter asked him to elaborate on his condemnation of the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan, and the president said: “It’s heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking.”

“This is what we’ve witnessed,” President Obama said. “We’ve seen the timeless dignity of tens of thousands of Iranians marching in silence. We’ve seen people of all ages risk everything to insist that their votes are counted and that their voices are heard.

“Above all, we’ve seen courageous women stand up to the brutality and threats, and we’ve experienced the searing image of a woman bleeding to death on the streets.

“While this loss is raw and extraordinarily painful, we also know this: those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history.”

But Obama’s critics will no doubt come out swinging. Because he did not say: “You’re with us or you’re against us.”