Monday, July 31, 2006

Embrace Iran as Part of the Solutiion--William O. Beeman

Printed from projo.com:


Embrace Iran as part of the solution
William O. Beeman
01:00 AM EDT on Monday, July 31, 2006

BLAMING IRAN for the horrific violence between Israel and the Arabs of Lebanon and Palestine is a popular stance. But though it might make people feel good to give Iran yet another tongue-lashing, such an exercise would do nothing to stop the violence going on in the Mideast. And, paradoxically, Iran could play a role in bringing about peace -- if it were allowed to try.

Iran makes a convenient scapegoat. It has no defenders. Americans and Europeans are furious with Iran over the its development of a nuclear program. The region's Sunni states (principally Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt) are worried about growing Iranian power as Shi'a forces throughout the Mideast grow in influence. The Sunnis are uncomfortable defending the Shi'a community in Lebanon, and are quite happy to have Iran bear blame for the war, even if the reasoning is weak.
Meanwhile, in the United States, neo-conservatives are primed with a decade-long program to attack Iran. They have conveniently grafted this onto the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict as a suggested response.

However, both of these positions are mistaken, in their analysis and their strategic goals.

The Sunni states' position is short-sighted and pusillanimous. Perhaps they hope that the Shi'a world as a whole will be weakened through Israel's actions. But there is no magic Israeli bullet that will eliminate the need of the region's nations to come to peaceful terms with Iran, which grows more prosperous and stronger with every American misstep and every increase in the price of oil. Nor can the Sunni states avoid accommodating the growing non-Iranian Shi'a population in the region.

Standing silent as the Lebanese Shi'a are attacked is also bringing about destruction of the Sunni population in Lebanon -- including the "Jewel of the Eastern Mediterranean," the Sunni-and-Christian city of Beirut, long a financial and tourist center for the Sunni-Arab community. Standing on the sidelines in the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict also effectively ignores the backlash being felt by the Palestinians and their supporters as Israel lashes out at Hamas.

The neo-conservative position is far more complex, and potentially more dangerous. The neoconservatives purposely ignore that their basic thesis is wrong. Hezbollah and Hamas are not puppets; they have control of their actions and destinies. More important, the neo-conservatives' proposed action -- attacking Iran militarily -- is impossible at present. A campaign against Iran is acknowledged by U.S. military strategists to be impractical and potentially ineffective.

Finally, even if the United States or Israel could destroy Iran's government through a military attack, this action would not curtail violence against Israel. More specifically, it would not destroy Hezbollah or Hamas, as is claimed by the neo-conservatives.

One can only conclude that the neo-conservatives have been calling for Iran's destruction for so long that they can't give up the habit. William Kristol, writing in The Weekly Standard and London's Financial Times on July 16, says: "No Islamic Republic of Iran, no Hezbollah. No Islamic Republic of Iran, no one to prop up the Assad regime in Syria. No Iranian support for Syria . . . little state sponsorship of Hamas and Hezbollah. "

The Wall Street Journal editorial page has stated flatly: "Keep in mind that Hezbollah is not the indigenous Lebanese 'resistance' organization it claims to be, but is a military creature of Tehran."

Neo-conservative guru Michael Ledeen, of the American Enterprise Institute, writes: "There is a common prime mover, and that is the Iranian mullahcracy, the revolutionary Islamic fascist state that declared war on us 27 years ago and has yet to be held accountable."

These representative positions sound reasonable in Washington only because they perpetuate the U.S. foreign-policy myth that state support is the only thing that sustains such groups as Hezbollah and Hamas. The glib neo-conservative solution -- destroy the state supporters (in this case, Iran) and the offending groups will be destroyed -- sounds great to sound-bite-driven legislators with little knowledge of the Mideast.

However, with a little reflection, Washington policymakers should be running away from the neo-conservatives on this point, since the latter's spiel should sound ominously familiar. It is the precise formula promulgated by a major group of neo-conservative advisers (including Richard Perle and Douglas Feith) to then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in 1996. Their paper, "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," called for overthrowing the governments of Iraq, Iran, and Syria as a way to eliminate threats to Israel, on the theory that this would undercut support for groups opposing Israel.

This call for action was repeated by many of the same neo-conservative group members -- including Kristol, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, and Zalmay Khalilzad, under the rubric The Project for the New American Century -- in 1998. They wrote a recommendation to President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich calling for overthrow of Saddam Hussein, in part to obtain security for Israel. The basic logic in these position papers drove the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Then as now, the idea that Mideastern regime change would secure Israel's safety is wrong. It is wrong both in its reasoning and in its understanding of the facts about Hezbollah and Hamas -- their history and their purpose.

Hamas (as some neo-conservatives, including Kristol, actually point out) is an emanation of the Muslim Brotherhood, now enjoying resurgence in Egypt. Hamas predates the Iranian Revolution, and the Muslim Brotherhood's pedigree goes back to the 19th Century and the original Islamic Movement, led by reformer Jamal ed-Din al-Afghani. The movement was designed to counter European powers and the Mideastern rulers who collaborated with them to rob the region's people of their patrimony.

Iran has no control over Hamas's actions or political agenda. The closest Iran comes to influencing Hamas is in financial support. This is based on a general open appeal from Hamas leader Khaled Mesha'al after Hamas came to power in Palestine -- in a democratic election -- and was subsequently isolated by Israel and the United States.
Hezbollah would never have existed if the French had not created a state where the plurality of Shi'a Muslims would be ruled by minority confessional groups in their own nation -- groups that had no interest in protecting the Shi'a as they were attacked by Israel throughout the late 20th Century.

Iran was instrumental in the birth of Hezbollah, in the early 1980s, when it was the only defense available for the Shi'a community. For several years, however -- although Hezbollah uses Iranian arms and Iran communicates with Hezbollah -- Iran has had no effective control over Hezbollah's actions, especially since Hezbollah has become largely a political and charitable organization. As former CIA analyst and now Georgetown University Prof. Daniel Byman wrote in Foreign Affairs, in 2003, Iran "lacks the means to force a significant change in the [Hezbollah] movement and its goals. It has no real presence on the ground in Lebanon, and a call to disarm or cease resistance would likely cause Hezbollah's leadership, or at least its most militant elements, simply to sever ties with Tehran's leadership."

In short, both Hamas and Hezbollah have their own history, their own reasons for existing, and their own agendas regarding Israel and the West. The idea that they are empty vessels waiting to be filled with an Iranian agenda is absurd. Even if Iran were leveled -- like Carthage in Roman times -- both Hamas and Hezbollah would continue their struggle against Israel, and the Shi'a world, energized by the outrages perpetrated against it, would continue to grow in strength and defiance.

It is better, by far, to embrace Iran as part of the solution than as part of the problem. Iran may not influence the actions of Hezbollah and Hamas, but it offers a way to talk to the two groups. In the past, it's been willing to serve as a mediator in the region, and because Iran craves the international community's respect -- more than any other commodity -- it relishes the idea of being offered a position as a peacemaker.

Vilifying Iran is not doing anyone any good. Asking it for a little help might, on the other hand, do much to bring about Mideastern peace.

William O. Beeman is a professor of anthropology and Middle East Studies at Brown University.

Online at: http://www.projo.com/opinion/contributors/content/projo_20060731_31ctbee.17249fc.html

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Salon.com News | The "hiding among civilians" myth

Salon.com News The "hiding among civilians" myth

The "hiding among civilians" mythIsrael claims it's justified in bombing civilians because Hezbollah mingles with them. In fact, the militant group doesn't trust its civilians and stays as far away from them as possible.
By Mitch Prothero
Jul. 28, 2006 The bombs came just as night fell, around 7 p.m. The locals knew that the 10-story apartment building had been the office, and possibly the residence, of Sheik Tawouk, the Hezbollah commander for the south, so they had moved their families out at the start of the war. The landlord had refused to rent to Hezbollah when they requested the top floors of the building. No matter, the locals said, the Hezb guys just moved in anyway in the name of the "resistance."
Everyone knew that the building would be hit eventually. Its location in downtown Tyre, which had yet to be hit by Israeli airstrikes, was not going to protect it forever. And "everyone" apparently included Sheik Tawouk, because he wasn't anywhere near it when it was finally hit.
Two guided bombs struck it in a huge flash bang of fire and concrete dust followed by the roar of 10 stories pancaking on top of each other, local residents said. Jihad Husseini, 46, runs the driving school a block away and was sitting in his office when the bombs struck. He said his life was saved because he had drawn the heavy cloth curtains shut on the windows facing the street, preventing him from being hit by a wave of shattered glass. But even so, a chunk of smoldering steel flew through the air, broke through the window and the curtain, and shot past his head and through the wall before coming to rest in his neighbor's home.
But Jihad still refuses to leave.
"Everything is broken, but I can make it better," he says, surrounded by his sons Raed, 20, and Mohammed, 12. "I will not leave. This place is not military, it is not Hezbollah; it was an empty apartment."
Throughout this now 16-day-old war, Israeli planes high above civilian areas make decisions on what to bomb. They send huge bombs capable of killing things for hundreds of meters around their targets, and then blame the inevitable civilian deaths -- the Lebanese government says 600 civilians have been killed so far -- on "terrorists" who callously use the civilian infrastructure for protection.
But this claim is almost always false. My own reporting and that of other journalists reveals that in fact Hezbollah fighters -- as opposed to the much more numerous Hezbollah political members, and the vastly more numerous Hezbollah sympathizers -- avoid civilians. Much smarter and better trained than the PLO and Hamas fighters, they know that if they mingle with civilians, they will sooner or later be betrayed by collaborators -- as so many Palestinian militants have been.
For their part, the Israelis seem to think that if they keep pounding civilians, they'll get some fighters, too. The almost nightly airstrikes on the southern suburbs of Beirut could be seen as making some sense, as the Israelis appear convinced there are command and control bunkers underneath the continually smoldering rubble. There were some civilian casualties the first few nights in places like Haret Hreik, but people quickly left the area to the Hezbollah fighters with their radios and motorbikes.
But other attacks seem gratuitous, fishing expeditions, or simply intended to punish anything and anyone even vaguely connected to Hezbollah. Lighthouses, grain elevators, milk factories, bridges in the north used by refugees, apartment buildings partially occupied by members of Hezbollah's political wing -- all have been reduced to rubble.
In the south, where Shiites dominate, just about everyone supports Hezbollah. Does mere support for Hezbollah, or even participation in Hezbollah activities, mean your house and family are fair game? Do you need to fire rockets from your front yard? Or is it enough to be a political activist?
The Israelis are consistent: They bomb everyone and everything remotely associated with Hezbollah, including noncombatants. In effect, that means punishing Lebanon. The nation is 40 percent Shiite, and of that 40 percent, tens of thousands are employed by Hezbollah's social services, political operations, schools, and other nonmilitary functions. The "terrorist" organization Hezbollah is Lebanon's second-biggest employer.
People throw the phrase "ghost town" around a lot, but Nabatiya, a bombed-out town about 15 miles from the Lebanon-Israel border, deserves it. One expects the spirits of the town's dead, or its refugees, to silently glide out onto its abandoned streets from the ruined buildings that make up much of the town.
Not all of the buildings show bomb damage, but those that don't have metal shutters blown out as if by a terrible wind. And there are no people at all, except for the occasional Hezbollah scout on a motorbike armed only with a two-way radio, keeping an eye on things as Israeli jets and unmanned drones circle overhead.
Overlooking the outskirts of this town, which has a peacetime population of 100,000 or so -- mostly Shiite supporters of Hezbollah and its more secular rival Amal -- is the Ragheh Hareb Hospital, a facility that makes quite clear what side the residents of Nabatiya are on in this conflict.
The hospital's carefully sculpted and trimmed front lawn contains the giant Red Crescent that denotes the Muslim version of the Red Cross. As we approach it, an Israeli missile streaks by, smashing into a school on the opposite hilltop. As we crouch and then run for the shelter of the hospital awning, that giant crescent reassures me until I look at the flagpole. The Lebanese flag and its cedar tree is there -- right next to the flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
It's safe to say that Ragheh Hareb Hospital has an association with Hezbollah. And the staff sports the trimmed beards and polite, if somewhat ominous, manner of the group. After young men demand press IDs and do some quick questioning, they allow us to enter.
Dr. Ahmed Tahir recognizes me from a funeral in the nearby village of Dweir. An Israeli bomb dropped on their house killed a Hezbollah cleric and 11 members of his immediate family, mostly children. People in Lebanon are calling it a war crime. Tahir looks exhausted, and our talk is even more tense than the last time.
"Maybe it would be best if the Israelis bombed your car on the road here," he said, with a sharp edge. "If you were killed, maybe the public outcry would be so bad in America that the Jews would be forced to stop these attacks."
When I volunteered that the Bush administration cared little for journalists, let alone ones who reported from Hezbollah territory, he shrugged. "Maybe if it was an American bomb used by the Israelis that killed an American journalist, they would stop this horror," he said.
The handful of people in the town include some from Hezbollah's political wing, as well as volunteers keeping an eye on things while the residents are gone. Off to the side, as we watch the Israelis pummel ridgelines on the outskirts of town, one of the political operatives explains that the fighters never come near the town, reinforcing what other Hezbollah people have told me over the years.
Although Israel targets apartments and offices because they are considered "Hezbollah" installations, the group has a clear policy of keeping its fighters away from civilians as much as possible. This is not for humanitarian reasons -- they did, after all, take over an apartment building against the protests of the landlord, knowing full well it would be bombed -- but for military ones.
"You can be a member of Hezbollah your entire life and never see a military wing fighter with a weapon," a Lebanese military intelligence official, now retired, once told me. "They do not come out with their masks off and never operate around people if they can avoid it. They're completely afraid of collaborators. They know this is what breaks the Palestinians -- no discipline and too much showing off."
Perhaps once a year, Hezbollah will hold a military parade in the south, in which its weapons and fighters appear. Media access to these parades is tightly limited and controlled. Unlike the fighters in the half dozen other countries where I have covered insurgencies, Hezbollah fighters do not like to show off for the cameras. In Iraq, with some risk taking, you can meet with and even watch the resistance guys in action. (At least you could during my last time there.) In Afghanistan, you can lunch with Taliban fighters if you're willing to walk a day or so in the mountains. In Gaza and the West Bank, the Fatah or Hamas fighter is almost ubiquitous with his mask, gun and sloganeering to convince the Western journalist of the justice of his cause.
The Hezbollah guys, on the other hand, know that letting their fighters near outsiders of any kind -- journalists or Lebanese, even Hezbollah supporters -- is stupid. In three trips over the last week to the south, where I came near enough to the fighting to hear Israeli artillery, and not just airstrikes, I saw exactly no fighters. Guys with radios with the look of Hezbollah always found me. But no fighters on corners, no invitations to watch them shoot rockets at the Zionist enemy, nothing that can be used to track them.
Even before the war, on many of my trips to the south, the Lebanese army, or the ubiquitous guy on a motorbike with a radio, would halt my trip and send me over to Tyre to get permission from a Hezbollah official before I could proceed, usually with strict limits on where I could go.
Every other journalist I know who has covered Hezbollah has had the same experience. A fellow journalist, a Lebanese who has covered them for two decades, knows only one military guy who will admit it, and he never talks or grants interviews. All he will say is, "I'll be gone for a few months for training. I'll call when I'm back." Presumably his friends and neighbors may suspect something, but no one says anything.
Hezbollah's political members say they have little or no access to the workings of the fighters. This seems to be largely true: While they obviously hear and know more than the outside world, the firewall is strong.
Israel, however, has chosen to treat the political members of Hezbollah as if they were fighters. And by targeting the civilian wing of the group, which supplies much of the humanitarian aid and social protection for the poorest people in the south, they are targeting civilians.
Earlier in the week, I stood next to a giant crater that had smashed through the highway between Tyre and Sidon -- the only route of escape for most of the people in the far south. Overhead, Israeli fighters and drones circled above the city and its outlying areas and regular blasts of bombs and naval artillery could be heard.
The crater served as a nice place to check up on the refugees, who were forced by the crater to slow down long enough to be asked questions. They barely stopped, their faces wrenched in near panic. The main wave of refugees out of the south had come the previous two days, so these were the hard-luck cases, the people who had been really close to the fighting and who needed two days just to get to Tyre, or who had had to make the tough decision whether to flee or stay put, with neither choice looking good.
The roads in the south are full of the cars of people who chose wrong -- burned-out chassis, broken glass, some cars driven straight into posts or ditches. Other seem to have broken down or run out of gas on the long dirt detours around the blown-out highway and bridge network the Israeli air force had spent days methodically destroying even as it warned people to flee.
One man, slowing his car around the crater, almost screams, "There is nothing left. This country is not for us." His brief pause immediately draws horns and impatient yells from the people in the cars behind him. They pass the crater but within two minutes a large explosion behind us, north, in the direction of Sidon, rocks us.
As we drive south toward Tyre, we soon pass a new series of scars on the highway: shrapnel, hubcaps and broken glass. A car that had been maybe five minutes ahead of us was hit by an Israeli shell. Three of its passengers were wounded, and it was heading north to the Hammound hospital at Sidon. We turned around because of the attack and followed the car to Sidon. Those unhurt staked out the parking lot of the hospital, looking for the Western journalists they were convinced had called in the strike. Luckily my Iraqi fixer smelled trouble and we got out of there. Probably nothing would have happened -- mostly they were just freaked-out country people who didn't like the coincidence of an Israeli attack and a car full of journalists driving past.
So the analysts talking on cable news about Hezbollah "hiding within the civilian population" clearly have spent little time if any in the south Lebanon war zone and don't know what they're talking about. Hezbollah doesn't trust the civilian population and has worked very hard to evacuate as much of it as possible from the battlefield. And this is why they fight so well -- with no one to spy on them, they have lots of chances to take the Israel Defense Forces by surprise, as they have by continuing to fire rockets and punish every Israeli ground incursion.
And the civilians? They see themselves as targeted regardless of their affiliation. They are enraged at Israel and at the United States, the only two countries on earth not calling for an immediate cease-fire. Lebanese of all persuasions think the United States and Israel believe that Lebanese lives are cheaper than Israeli ones. And many are now saying that they want to fight.
-- By Mitch Prothero

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Attacking Iran Will Not Stop the Violence in Lebanon--William O. Beeman

Attacking Iran will not Stop the Violence in Lebanon

William O. Beeman

Blaming Iran for the horrific violence between Israel and the Arabs of Lebanon and Palestine is a popular stance in the world today. Although it might make many people feel good to give Iran another tongue lashing, such an exercise will do nothing to stop the violence and destruction going on in the region. Paradoxically, however, Iran could play a role in bringing about peace if it were allowed to do so.

Iran makes a convenient scapegoat. It has no defenders. Americans and Europeans are already furious with Tehran over the development of Iran's nuclear program. The Sunni States in the region--principally Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt are worried about growing Iranian power as Shi'a forces throughout the region grow in influence. The Sunnis are uncomfortable defending the Shi'a community in Lebanon, and are quite happy to have Iran bear blame for the war, even if the reasoning is weak. Meanwhile in the United States, neoconservatives are primed with a decade-long program to attack Iran that they have conveniently grafted onto the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict as a suggested response.

However, both of these positions are mistaken in their analysis and in their strategic goals.
The Sunni States' position is short-sighted and pusillanimous. Perhaps they hope that the Shi'a world as a whole will be weakened through Israel's actions. But there is no magic Israeli bullet that will eliminate the need of the nations in the region to come to peaceful terms with Iran, which grows stronger and more prosperous every day with every American misstep and every increase in the price of oil. Nor can the Sunni states avoid accommodating the significant, growing non-Iranian Shi'a population in the region. Standing silent and allowing the Lebanese Shi'a to be attacked is also bringing about the destruction of the Sunni population in Lebanon--including the "Jewel of the Eastern Mediterranean," the Sunni/Christian city of Beirut, long a financial and tourist center for the Sunni Arab community. Standing on the sidelines in the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict also effectively ignores the backlash that is being felt by the Palestinians and their supporters as Israel lashes out at Hamas.

The neoconservative position is far more complex, and potentially more dangerous. The neoconservatives purposely ignore the fact that their basic thesis is wrong. Hamas and Hezbollah are not puppets. They have control of their own actions and destinies. More importantly, the neoconservative proposed action--attacking Iran militarily--is impossible at present; a campaign against Iran is acknowledged by American military strategists to be impractical and potentially ineffective. Finally, even if the United States or Israel could be successful in destroying Iran's government through a military attack, this action would not curtail violence against Israel. More specifically, it would not destroy Hezbollah or Hamas, as the neoconservatives claim.

One can only conclude that the neoconservatives have been calling for Iran's destruction for so long, they can not give up the habit. William Kristol writing in the Weekly Standard and London's Financial Times on July 16 writes: "No Islamic Republic of Iran, no Hezbollah. No Islamic Republic of Iran, no one to prop up the Assad regime in Syria. No Iranian support for Syria . . . little state sponsorship of Hamas and Hezbollah. " The Wall Street Journal Editorial Page has stated flatly: "Keep in mind that Hezbollah is not the indigenous Lebanese "resistance" organization it claims to be, but is a military creature of Tehran." Neoconservative guru Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute writes: "there is a common prime mover, and that is the Iranian mullahcracy, the revolutionary Islamic fascist state that declared war on us 27 years ago and has yet to be held accountable." Finally, Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, picking up these themes announced on July 19 that Hezbollah timed the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, the event which set off the violence, to deflect world attention away from Iran's nuclear development program.

These representative positions sound reasonable in Washington only because they perpetuate the dominant mythology in American foreign policy that State support is the only thing that sustains groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. The glib neoconservative solution: destroy the State supporters, in this case Iran, and the offending groups will be destroyed in turn, sounds great to sound-byte driven legislators who have no knowledge of the Middle Eastern region.

However, with a little reflection, Washington policy makers should be running away from the neoconservatives on this point, since their spiel should sound ominously familiar. It is the precise formula promulgated by a major group of neoconservative advisors, including Richard Pearle, and Douglas Feith to Israeli Prime-Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996. Their paper, entitled "'A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," called for the overthrow of the governments of Iraq, Iran and Syria as a way to eliminate threats to Israel, on the theory that this would undercut support for groups opposing Israel.

This call for action was repeated by many of the same neoconservative group members, along with William Kristol, Dick Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton and Zalmay Khalilzad under the rubric of the organization, The Project for the New American Century in 1998. This group wrote a recommendation to President Bill Clinton and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich calling again for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, in part to obtain security for Israel. The basic logic in these position papers drove the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Then as now, the idea that regime change in the region will secure Israel's safety is wrong. It is mistaken both in its reasoning and in its understanding of basic facts about Hezbollah and Hamas, their history and their purpose.

Hamas, as some, including Kristol, actually point out, is an emanation of the Muslim brotherhood, now enjoying resurgence in Egypt. Hamas predates the Iranian Revolution, since the pedigree of its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood goes back to the 19th Century and the original Islamic Movement led by reformer Jamal ed-Din al-Afghani, designed to counter European powers and the Middle Eastern rulers who collaborated with them to rob the people of the region of their patrimony.

Iran has no control at all over Hamas' actions or its political agenda. The closest Iran comes to actually influencing Hamas is financial support provided based on a general open appeal from Hamas leader Khaled Mesha'al after Hamas came to power in Palestine in a democratic election, and was subsequently isolated by Israel and the United States.

Hezbollah would never have existed if the French had not created a state where the plurality of Shi'a Muslims would be ruled by minority confessional groups in their own nation--groups that had no interest in protecting the Shi'a as they were attacked by Israel throughout the late 20th Century.

Iran was instrumental in the birth of Hezbollah in the early 1980's when it was the only defense available for the Shi'a community. However, today, though Hezbollah uses Iranian arms (Iran in fact sells to many nations), and Iran has communication with Hezbollah, every expert on Hezbollah today agrees that Iran has had no effective control over Hezbollah's actions for several years--especially since Hezbollah has become largely a political and charitable organization. As former CIA analyst and now Georgetown University professor Daniel Byman wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2003, Iran "lacks the means to force a significant change in the [Hezbollah] movement and its goals. It has no real presence on the ground in Lebanon and a call to disarm or cease resistance would likely cause Hezbollah's leadership, or at least its most militant elements simply to sever ties with Tehran's leadership."

In short, both Hamas and Hezbollah have their own history, their own reasons for existing, and their own agendas regarding Israel and the West. The idea that they are empty vessels waiting to be filled with an Iranian agenda is absurd in the extreme. Even if Iran were leveled, like Carthage in Roman times, both Hamas and Hezbollah would continue their struggle against Israel, and the Shi'a world, energized by the outrages perpetrated against it, would continue to grow in strength and defiance.

It is better by far to embrace Iran as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Many Westerners, noting the hostile rhetoric against Israel emanating from Iran may find it hard to believe that Iran could ever play a positive role in a conflict of this sort. However, this attitude is part of the problem. Iran talks the way it does in great part to retaliate against the United States for its actions against Iran. The fact that the United States has not yet found a way to actually talk to Iran exacerbates this situation, promoting even more Iranian hostility.

Iran craves the respect of the international community more than any other commodity one might offer, though Western observers will find their methods for obtaining that respect counter productive. Nevertheless, Iran models its macho posturing on those who confront it—primarily the United States. Iran relishes the idea that it might be offered a respectful position as a peacemaker.

In practical terms, the Islamic Republic may not directly influence the actions of Hezbollah and Hamas, but they offer a way to talk to the two groups. Iran has been willing to serve as mediator in the past in the region, notably in working with Armenia and Azerbaijan, and has garnered bona fides for its efforts. Moreover, Iran has hinted in the recent past that it would drop its hostile posture toward Israel if relations with the United States were to improve.

Many Middle Eastern problems will be solved once the United States decides to get serious about dealing with Iran, as myriad foreign policy advisors, including former National Security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski and the Council on Foreign Relations have recommended. Vilifying Iran is not doing anyone any good, but asking them for a little help might do a great deal to bring peace to the region.
_____________________

William O. Beeman is Professor of Anthropology and Middle East Studies at Brown University. He has lived and worked in the Middle East for more than thirty years. His most recent book is The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Pragmtism May Trump Zeal as Iran's Power Grows--Christian Science Monitor

Christian Science Monitor
July 6, 2006
Pragmatism may trump zeal as Iran's power grows
Iran faces a July 12 deadline on the West's incentives intended to defuse nuclear standoff.
By Scott Peterson | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
ISTANBUL, TURKEY – Iranians tearfully remember the moment when a US Navy cruiser shot down an Iranian civilian airliner over the hazy Persian Gulf, killing all 290 on board.
Eighteen years ago this week, Iranian TV flashed images of bodies and debris floating in the water and the Islamic Republic accused the US of a "barbaric massacre." It added the destruction of Iran Air Flight 655 and its "martyrs" to a long list of grievances that continue to stoke US-Iran hostility.
Now, as Iran prepares to respond to a US offer of direct talks over its nuclear program - the first such high-level public offer since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution - its officials are reexamining their past.
How is the thinking of Iran's arch-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the more powerful clerics led by Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, shaped by their difficult and sometimes violent experience with the US?
That history includes US support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s - and Western silence about Iraq's flagrant use of chemical weapons at the time - as well as President Bush's inclusion of Iran in his "axis of evil."
But despite the decades of mistrust, disrespect, and anger, analysts say that Iran's leaders feel they are now in a position of power like never before, so revolutionary zeal is giving way to a new pragmatism that could break the taboo over talks.
"You can't deal with the US from a position of weakness. The only way the US will come around to treat you with respect is from a position of power," says Farideh Farhi, an Iran specialist at the University of Hawaii, currently in Tehran.
The US has "historically proven its intent to weaken" Iran, says Ms. Farhi. Iran's leadership shares this view, as do many ordinary Iranians, who otherwise often hold Americans themselves in high regard. "Even among the Iranian population, you can sense a tremendous distrust of US intentions."
Wednesday, Iran postponed talks with the European Union on a bundle of incentives put forward by Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany, and the US to ease tensions over its nuclear program. Talks were rescheduled for Thursday to discuss the offer before a July 12 deadline imposed on Iran to respond to the package.
Iran's current sense of strength comes from a coincidence of factors. Mr. Ahmadinejad's victory a year ago placed every lever of power into conservative hands; last April, during the back-and-forth with Europe and the US over Iran's disputed nuclear program, Tehran achieved low-level uranium enrichment.
Iran is buoyed also by a glut of cash from high global oil prices, and has watched as the US military machine - once seen as a tool of "regime change" that would be aimed at Iran - is bogged down fighting an insurgency in Iraq.
"Thanks to the US government, two of Iran's main threats - Saddam Hussein, and the Taliban and Al Qaeda - have been removed from power," says Abbas Maleki, Iran's former deputy foreign minister, currently at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. "So it's a different situation."
Iran and its leadership have also changed over time, experts say. Dreams of exporting the revolution evaporated long ago. "Twenty years ago, the Iranian public sphere was [still] ideological.... At that time, talk of US-Iran relations was taboo," says Hamid Reza Jalaiepour, a US hostage-taker, former intelligence officer, and provincial governor.
"Now, the Iranian public sphere is pragmatic," says Mr. Jalaiepour, who today teaches political sociology at Tehran University. "The two sides are willing to negotiate. But both sides are bargaining for the price, for their own conditions."
There is new "common ground," because US military control of adjacent Iraq and Afghanistan means "the US is a close neighbor of Iran," says Jalaiepour. Populists like Ahmadinejad "are looking for development [and] need votes"; the US likewise "can't solve its problems through another war, or through sanctions."
There is even a mechanism in Iranian culture that can overcome "all these insults, annoyance, and sabotage" of two estranged parties, says William Beeman, an anthropologist and Iran specialist at Brown University, contacted in Tokyo. "Once reconciliation takes place, it is total, it is absolute sweetness and light from then on."
But sitting down for talks will require some humility. Washington alleges that Iran is the world's "most active state sponsor of terrorism," for supporting Hizbullah in Lebanon, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories.
And in Tehran, true believers of the revolution can't count the number of American flags they have burned over the years, or effigies of Bush they have torched.
"History is important, but for a new relationship we should forget everything in the past, because those bad events do not help solve the problem," says Amir Mohebian, political editor of the conservative Resalat newspaper in Tehran. "It has been a cold war between the two countries, and it could be a hot war any moment, so each [side] should try to bury the history."
"I think it is a good opportunity for the US, because the generation of the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war are showing that they [can] forget all these problems of the past," says Mr. Maleki, whose brother was killed at the Iran-Iraq front. "All of us - we are ready to forget. We have moved on."
The US experience with Iran fixates on the hostage crisis, when radical students seized the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979, and held and humiliated 52 US diplomats for 444 days. US officials also saw an Iranian hand in bomb attacks against US Marines and US Embassy targets in Lebanon, and even the kidnapping of Americans there in the 1980s. They add the Khobar Towers bomb in Saudi Arabia in 1996, and charge that today Iran is meddling in Iraq.
Iranian baggage with the US stretches back to a CIA-engineered coup in 1953, that restored Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi to the Peacock Throne. And to that morning in 1988, when the USS Vincennes mistook the airliner for an attacking Iranian jet. In a result that still galls Iranians, the US never apologized for the incident; the ship's air-warfare chief won the Navy's Commendation Medal for "heroic achievement," and all crew received combat-action ribbons.
"It still resonates [in Iran], because it reaffirms the narrative that is already there: that Americans are hypocrites who talk about justice, but when it comes to wars and other people's interests, they always work to undermine it," says the University of Hawaii's Farhi.
A key case was Iranian help to the US on Afghanistan, after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. Both Iranian and American officials hoped it would be a seed for US-Iran d├ętente. But instead, within weeks Bush had included Iran - under reform-leaning President Mohammad Khatami - in his "axis of evil."
"Axis of evil was a fiasco for the Khatami government," says Farhi. "That was used by the hard-liners, who said: 'If you give in, if you help from a position of weakness, then you get negative results.' "
Similarly, US officials capped a series of modest goodwill gestures in the late 1990s with a March 2000 speech by then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She apologized for the 1953 coup, lifted import restrictions on foodstuffs and carpets, and called for dialogue.
Within days, Khamenei dismissed the apology as too late and irrelevant, because the US "might be committing similar crimes now," according to Kenneth Pollack, then head of Gulf affairs at the US National Security Council. "The hard-liners were just not interested in a rapprochement," Mr. Pollack writes in his book, "The Persian Puzzle."
The same uncompromising approach may apply to American neo-conservatives today. Both US and Israeli voices have excoriated the Bush administration for even considering talks with Iran.
"In the US, demonizing Iran is such an amazingly potent asset for US politicians, that you just don't have anyone cheering for this kind of improvement," says Beeman, author of "The 'Great Satan' vs. the 'Mad Mullahs.'"
Analysts say Iranians - and especially war veterans like Ahmadinejad - still smart from the support by the US and Europe of Hussein's Iraq. The result is a degree of stubborn conviction, that makes Iran's leadership less susceptible to penalties like economic sanctions.
"For a certain segment of people running the country - like Ahmadinejad - they have a can-do mentality [that] gives confidence,'" says Farhi. "They got through the [Iran-Iraq] war. They willed the defense of Iran."
But radicals in Iran have become "officials and statesmen," and the "state machine ... evolves radicals to a pragmatic way," says Jalaiepour. "Maybe the main obstacle today are hard-liners in the US - they are very dangerous - who don't like to solve the US-Iran problem through negotiation."
"This regime has invested heavily in anti-Americanism [and] they can't easily retreat from that position," says Abbas Amanat, professor of Middle East history at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
"The fact there was a hostage crisis, or the Iran-contra scandal, or even support for Iraq in the war - I don't think these are substantial barriers" to reconciliation, says Mr. Amanat. "What is a barrier is the rhetoric, and memories, of course."

William O. Beeman
Professor, Anthropology; and Theatre, Speech and Dance
Brown University
Providence, RI 02912