Signs of an Iranian-US thaw.

[Note: I actually posted the following a couple of hours before the interview in question aired. I've since done a little editing to make the time-frame a bit less confusing].

On Wednesday night, NBC aired an interview that Ann Curry recorded earlier in the day with newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who won elections in June in a surprising landslide.

Remember back when I said that the situation in Syria is closely entangled with its relationship with Iran, and the American relationship with both?

Before that interview aired, I felt a need to list some of the various indicators that I’ve noticed since just before the August 21 Syrian chemical weapons attack that suggest that President Obama and President Rouhani are both intent on moving our countries away from endless enmity, and toward rapprochement, starting with:

In fact, I’m culling all of the following from a search I did within my Twitter account, but reading a long list of tweets tends to get wearisome, so I’m turning instead to that other fine tool of the modern age: The bullet point.

All of the following reads to me, in sum and in parts, like the careful public face of a lot of fierce whispering in back rooms and corridors and with the help of people like the Swiss, who have long served as Iran-US intermediaries.

  • Within six days in late August, the CIA admitted its role in Iran’s 1953 coup (see above) and also in aiding Iraq in its use of chemical weapons against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s; the latter admission came a few days after Syria’s use of chemical weapons outside Damascus. These are both huge, huge scars on the collective Iranian psyche, and are frequently used as short-hand for why Iranians cannot trust the US. The minute I heard about the first admission, I thought “backchannel talks” — and when I heard the about the second, I nearly danced in my chair. For more on why the first is significant, here’s Robin Wright; for more the importance of the latter, click here.
  • Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s new Foreign Minister, spent 30 years of his life in the US and helped negotiate the intelligence assistance Iran gave the Bush Administration in the wake of 9/11 (yes, that really happened).
  • Iran’s parliament fast-tracked a debate on suing the US over its role in the 1953 coup (which is to say: The acknowledgement was acknowledged, but no one’s ready to say it’s no big).
  • State Department statement, August 28: “The United States respectfully asks the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to work cooperatively with us in our efforts to help US citizens Robert Levinson, Amir Hekmati, and Saeed Abedini to return to their families after lengthy detentions.” (Which is to say: “It’s not like we don’t have genuine diplomatic issues pending with you, too. We respectfully ask that you attend to them.”)
  • Iran was intimately involved in the Russian-American negotiations surrounding Syria’s chemical arsenal.
  • A western diplomat told the press that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will be dialing back the pressure on Iran in upcoming talks regarding its nuclear program.
  • “Rouhani seems to have chosen [the chemical weapons attack in] Syria as the first big internal debate of his new Administration.” – Time, September 9
  • Iranian state-run Press TV interviews Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif; he says “Getting to yes is our motive for [nuclear] talks.”
  • In an interview held before the Russian-American-Syrian deal was hammered out, Obama told ABC that he and Rouhani have exchanged letters, adding: “Negotiations with the Iranians is always difficult. I think this new president is not going to suddenly make it easy.” (Which is true, but also suggests that, just like Rouhani himself, Obama knows that even as he hints about a possible thaw in relations, neither he nor Rouhani will be served if he paints Iran’s President as a push-over).
  • Reuters: “New Iranian atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi pledged greater cooperation with the UN nuclear watchdog [the IAEA].”
  • Der Speigel: Rouhani says he is reported to be willing to decommission Iran’s nuclear installation at Fordo, near the holy city of Qom, if the West lifts sanctions.
  • Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — who, according to the Iranian Constitution, is exactly what his title suggests; thus he holds ultimate authority in the country — told a meeting of  the elite military force the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC): “I am not opposed to correct diplomacy. I believe in what was named many years ago as ‘heroic flexibility’.” He also told the Guards that they must not get involved with politics, which, given the fact that they are in fact deeply involved with the politics of Iran; helped unseat the last reformist President; and were instrumental in the violent suppression of the 2009 post-election protests — is saying something. Note also that the IRGC are the country’s single greatest economic powerhouse as well, including in such areas as civilian infrastructure and engineering, and thus they are not lightly messed with.
  • Rouhani also told the IRGC that they shouldn’t be involved in politics, saying that this had also been the opinion of the republic’s founder, the Ayatollah Khomeini — and while you and I may have no fond memories of Kohmeini, he remains a powerful unifying figure for the Iranian people.
  • On Wednesday Iran unexpectedly released eleven prominent political prisoners, including human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, on the eve of Rouhani’s visit to the US to attend the UN General Assembly. UPDATE: “In his annual message for Iranian New Year in 2011, President Obama specifically singled out Ms. Sotoudeh.
  • Also on Wednesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney revealed more details of the President’s letter to Rouhani: “In his letter the president indicated that the US is ready to resolve the nuclear issue in a way that allows Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes.”
  • In Curry’s preview of tonight’s interview with Rouhani, she reports that he told her: “From my point of view, the tone of [Obama's] letter was positive and constructive” and that “he has full authority to make a deal with the West on the disputed atomic program” — which is code for “I have the Supreme Leader behind me.” Oh, and he also says that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons.

And hey, it’s not just me who believes there’s real momentum toward a major diplomatic shift! CIA veteran and Georgetown University professor Paul Pillar wrote today that

Since Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran, he and his appointees have piled up indication upon indication, in their words and their actions, that they strongly want a new and improved relationship with the West and that they will do what they can to bring one about by facilitating a mutually acceptable agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program. 

Diplomacy is a messy, horribly frought business, and lord knows that the US and Iran have bungled many an effort to mend fences. Witness the fact that all that intel sharing in 2001 went absolutely nowhere — that indeed, within months, George W. Bush was referring to Iran as part of an “axis of evil.” Among other issues, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn’t appear particularly interested in any kind of thaw between Iran and the West, and as Pillar says, is providing copious rhetorical ammunition to any hardliners in the IRGC who would rather stay cozy with the Syrian regime and far away from the United States.

A lot could still go badly wrong, is what I’m saying.

But for the first time that I can ever remember, it feels like we have leaders on both sides who want it to go right.

Syrian refugees – actually a lot more than two million.

Last week the world reeled as we learned that the number of Syrian refugees had passed the two million mark.

Which is to say: Two million people—the equivalent of the combined populations of Boston, Detroit, and San Francisco—have fled their homes and country to what can only be called an uncertain fate in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and North Africa, with no idea whatsoever when or if they might ever return. Many refugees actually depend on the kindness of family and friends and never register with humanitarian aid organizations, so it’s likely that “two million” is, in fact, a low estimate.

Yet as horrifying as that is, as heartbreaking as the needs of the people fleeing and the people receiving them are, we must remember that those two million actually represent less than a third of all who have run for their lives in the course of this war.

The European Commission Humanitarian Office reports that an estimated 4.25 million Syrians are internally displaced persons—people forced out of their homes and communities by the violence, but who haven’t yet made it across a border. Thus, a total of 6.25 million Syrians—fully one third of the country’s population of 21 million—are, in fact, wandering.

The implications of this are staggering. As the region’s nations face historic internal turmoil and grapple with the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of strangers—sometimes at a rate of thousands a day—the social and cultural fabric of Syrian life has been shredded beyond recognition beneath bombs and chemical weapons.

Consider a life: Parents, grandparents, growing children. Income is earned, homes are built, marriages celebrated and babies welcomed. You shop for your daily needs, come home along familiar paths, make holiday plans and hope your aunt makes enough of her signature dish. Your father falls ill, your daughter outgrows her shoes, you bring a present to the neighbors. At every turn, your life is woven tightly into the garment of the lives around you, and whether any given day brings sorrow or joy, you know where to find solace, support, or someone with whom to share your good fortune.

Now it’s gone.

It’s gone, and you don’t know if you’ll ever get it back. It’s gone, not just for you and your family and your community, and not even “just” for the two million people who have (at the very least) found a way out of the country and away from the killing. It’s true for six and a quarter million people—the equivalent of nearly the entire population of Israel.

The Jewish people knows what this chaos looks like. We see it in the eyes of survivors; many can still feel it in their flesh. We are a people that until very recently knew little but the hurriedly packed bag, the abandoned home, the loved one lost forever. Whatever Jews and Arabs may have done to or said about each other in the 20th and 21st centuries, surely when we see a father gather a dead child in his arms, our arms must ache, too.

And as the heart cries out, the mind must also be honest about the horror’s further ramifications. It might be possible to imagine that the strife in Egypt won’t spread beyond its borders; it might be possible to hope that Jordan’s King will work with his opposition toward democracy and stability. It’s possible. But there’s simply no way to see the massive, violent movement of 6.25 million people just beyond and all around Israel’s borders as an event that might leave anyone in the region untouched. At a certain point, likely at many points, chaos tips over in ways that cannot be predicted and whoever is within shouting distance finds themselves in the path of the consequences.

This is the time in the Jewish year in which we straddle the universal and the personal at once: Last week we celebrated harat olam, the world’s creation; this week, we stand before the Divine and weigh our most intimate behavior. We do each while surrounded by our community and all we hold dear. We are reminded, at every holiday table and with every blow of the shofar, that our destiny as individuals and as a community is bound in a spiral of mutuality that turns and returns, endlessly.

The Syrian people are not my people. Some of them have killed some of mine; some of mine have killed some of theirs.

And yet they are my people, because they, too, were created b’tselem Elohim, in God’s image. They are my people because they suffer untold terrors. They are my people because wherever their calamity leads, it will brush against or crash into my people and my home. We cannot yet begin to guess the outcome of the shattering of Syria and its people, but lines drawn on maps will not keep the disaster neat and tidy.

I stand before my Creator this week devastated by what humanity has wrought, and not a little frightened of what is to come—frightened for Israel, frightened for everyone in the region, but mostly frightened for the mothers and fathers grasping little hands in the night, and trembling.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast

Syria – I don’t know.

Middle-East-map
The US is clearly going to be taking some action against the Assad regime in response to its use of chemical weapons. I’ve been following events very closely, but haven’t written about it (other than on Twitter, which is where the rough draft of history is written now, frankly) because I have neither time nor emotional bandwidth. I’ll just say a little bit here, but mostly, I wanted to provide some very, very useful (and easily understood) links.

Let me start by saying that there are genuinely no good options on the table. If the US had intervened early in the war, before it became a full-fledged civil conflict, maybe that could have slowed the carnage and led to something reasonable to replace the current regime. But that’s an enormous maybe, I’m not sure what that “intervention” could have or would have looked like, it would have been tremendously destabilizing to the rest of the region (which is likely why it never happened), and it would have cost the American people, as well. But mostly it didn’t happen, so we’ll never know.

So, having said that, I lean toward supporting military action, which I presume will mean damaging Assad’s capacity to carry out chemical weapons attacks in the future. I believe that doing nothing is the worst of several terrible options, because anything that strengthen’s Assad’s hand (which doing nothing would do) can only lead to greater brutality and the entrenchment of that brutality, not to mention strengthening the hands of other powers not known for their gentle natures: The hardliners in Iran (vs. the current Iranian President – you can read a little bit about divisions in Iran by clicking here), Hezbollah, Russia, etc.

I am painfully aware that such action will neither end the civil war nor unseat Assad, and that Syrian civilians may well die as a result. But a) Syrian civilians are already being mowed down daily as if in a threshing field, b) doing even this little bit of damage is also likely (in some way that we’ll never truly be able to measure) to save lives, and c) it’s possible that such activity could have a domino effect on Assad’s capacity to fight at all. On this last point, I’m genuinely just crossing my fingers, because adding chaos to chaos always produces new chaos — but we can never be sure ahead of time if it will be the chaos we want.

But aside from that, I also agree with Secretary of State Kerry that “it matters here if nothing is done.”

It matters because if we choose to live in the world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity, even after the United States and our allies said no, and then the world does nothing about it, there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will.

I also believe, and I may never be able to prove it, that it matters in a grand, human sense that when people are being slaughtered, someone is willing to do something for them. There is so little we can do — I believe, in some very inchoate way, that it matters that we at the very least try to stand between the Syrian people and chemical weapons.

But mostly, I don’t know. All possible options are bad, all will have consequences we cannot foresee, all will lead to more death and more misery for someone. My only hope is that the limited assault that I believe the Administration is contemplating will ultimately mean that things will be less bad than they might have been. We will likely never know for sure. I am very glad I’m not the one having to make the decisions.

Now for those resources:

  1. Nine questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask – Max Fisher in the Washington Post (the “nine questions” format is a recurrent thing he does, and they’re always excellent)
  2. The U.S. does have nonmilitary options in Syria. Here are four of them – also by Max Fisher. I believe that combining any of these with whatever the Administration has planned would be the better part of wisdom, particularly as concerns aid to the refugees and the countries taking them in. None will end the misery, but all stand a good chance of ameliorating the misery.
  3. The war after the war in Syria – by Joshua Foust, a former intelligence analyst at the Pentagon. Here he discusses who the rebels actually are, and the significance of some apparent splintering in the regime. The reality is that even if Assad disappeared tomorrow, the mayhem would still continue for quite some time.

Finally, a side-note on Iran: Several things have happened lately that look an awful lot to me like signs of a back channel between Tehran and Washington, including (but not limited to) the CIA admission that it was behind the 1953 coup that removed Iran’s only democratically elected leader from office and the CIA admission (coming less than a week after the earlier admission) that it helped Saddam Hussein attack Iran with chemical weapons in the 1980s. These are both things that were widely known, but have never been admitted before.

Bearing in mind all the struggles that the US and Iran have had surrounding Iran’s nuclear ambitions, an issue that the Obama White House seems to want to actually resolve, I believe that the Administration has been trying for some time to quitely improve Washington-Tehran communication — now, add to that the fact that the Iran-Syria relationship is vital to both countries (and to Hezbollah, which serves as Iran’s proxy in Lebanon), and I believe that whatever back channels we have with Iran have been working overtime this week. (Note also that the admission re: the CIA’s assistance to Iraq came after Assad attacked the suburbs of Damascus with chemical weapons — again, that piece I mentioned above re: divisions in Iran is useful here).

Look at that, this wasn’t short at all. It’s very hard to write short about all this stuff, even when your bottom line is “I don’t know.” At any rate, to quote my sister: More will be revealed.

It’ll be awful, but at some point, at least we’ll know what it is.

******************

PS For running updates on what’s unfolding, James Miller is doing a great job on Twitter.

UPDATE If you want to watch President Obama’s brief comments on the situation, you can click here. “A lot of people think something should be done but nobody wants to do it.”

Israeli-American company to drill for oil in occupied Golan Heights.

Golan mapWe don’t talk about it as much, but the West Bank and Gaza Strip aren’t the only territories Israel conquered in 1967 over which it’s still arguing. The Golan Heights was taken in the course of horrific battles with Syria, and though Israel annexed the land in 1981, international law (and, not for nothing, the Syrian people) still considers the Heights to be Syrian territory.

Which is why it’s kind of a big deal that Israel has decided to allow an American-Israeli firm to drill for oil there, as reported by Israeli financial daily Globes this week:

A month before U.S. President Barack Obama is due to visit Israel, the Israeli government has awarded the first license to drill for oil on the Golan Heights. The license covers half the area of the Golan from the latitude of Katzrin in the north to Tzemach in the south.

…the Ministry of Energy and Water Resources’ Petroleum Council recommended awarding the license to Genie Energy Ltd. (NYSE: GNE), headed by former minister Effie Eitam.

Globes suggests that “a drilling license on the Golan could cause an international fracas,” but I suspect that what with the daily mayhem and horror that Syria currently faces, it’s a good bet that Assad’s government won’t be able to do anything about it—and I further suspect that this fact crossed the minds of those deciding to award the license.

Some interesting personnel notes: Dick Cheney and Rupert Murdoch serve onGenie’s Strategic Advisory Board, as does Lord Jacob Rothschild, chairman of the Rothschild Foundation. Genie is also the parent company of Israel Energy Initiatives Ltd. (IEI), “which is moving forward on a venture to develop shale oil deposits in [Israel’s] coastal plain.” IEI’s Chief Scientist, Harold Vinegar, likewise serves on Genie’s Strategic Advisory Board.

In other personnel notes, as Globes reports,

Genie Energy’s win in the license is highly symbolic for Eitam, who resides at Moshav Nob on the Golan, and fought against the Syrian Army there during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, winning a medal for courage.

There’s another interesting bit of trivia about Eitam. In 2004 he said the following about Palestinian militants in a New Yorker interview with Jeffery Goldberg:

I don’t call these people animals. These are creatures who came out of the depths of darkness. It is not by chance that the State of Israel got the mission to pave the way for the rest of the world, to militarily get rid of these dark forces.

Goldberg wrote that Eitam clarified that “he believes there are innocent men among the Palestinians, but that they are collectively guilty.”

We will have to kill them all. I know it’s not very diplomatic. I don’t mean all the Palestinians, but the ones with evil in their heads. Not only blood on their hands but evil in their heads. They are contaminating the hearts and minds of the next generation of Palestinians.

So here’s what we have: a warmongering former American Vice President (and virulent opponent of the current President); a media mogul of dubious ethics; the head of an international Jewish philanthropic entity dedicated to (among other things) “the environment, sustainable development and green energy”; a tightly bound confluence of American and Israeli business interests; and a former Israeli governmental minister who is one caveat shy of advocating mass genocide, all about to benefit from exploiting the natural resources of a large chunk of land that, according to international law, actually belongs to another country.

Huh. That seems just a wee bit dicey to me.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

A lot of bad news out there…

SO, I turn, as I so often do these days, to the one steady supply of good news: America’s LGBTQ community.

DON’T ASK DON’T TELL IS A THING OF THE PAST!

President Barack Obama signs the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010 during a ceremony at the Interior Department in Washington, D.C., Dec. 22, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

President Barack Obama has put his signature to certification of the repeal of the military’s anti-gay “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which means that the ban on openly gay and lesbian members of the U.S. military officially ends in 60 days, or on Sept. 20.

“Today, we have taken the final major step toward ending the discriminatory ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ law that undermines our military readiness and violates American principles of fairness and equality,” the president said today after signing the repeal certification, adding that he had indeed “certified and notified Congress that the requirements for repeal have been met.”

The president continued, “As Commander in Chief, I have always been confident that our dedicated men and women in uniform would transition to a new policy in an orderly manner that preserves unit cohesion, recruitment, retention and military effectiveness. … Our military will no longer be deprived of the talents and skills of patriotic Americans just because they happen to be gay or lesbian.”

Obama also praised “our civilian and military leadership for moving forward in the careful and deliberate manner that this change requires, especially with our nation at war.”

That will make for a lovely birthday present, thank you very much US Congress and President Obama! When I wake up on my birthday on September 21, America will be one nice, big step closer to perfecting our union.

And thank you, LGBTQ community, for continuing to fight for that greater perfection. Your straight brothers and sisters owe you a debt of gratitude — and not just because you’re the only folks who deliver good news anymore.

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