Greens, nukes, fears: untangling Iran

Iran is not a place easy to explain in a few sentences, or even in a few books. As those who observe (rather than avert their eyes from) Iran can tell you, it is a land of contrasts. It is simultaneously a democracy and a theocratic dictatorship. Its Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) is highly reactionary. Its president spouts silly racist slurs against Israel and Jews while ignoring the fact that Iran’s own Jewish population is a protected minority. Naturally, Iran poses us questions many feel must be answered soon. To reduce the dangers from the falsehoods typically circulated in our media, better understanding of Iran would be beneficial.

Twelve months ago, I cautioned against too much wishful thinking regarding Iran’s election and its Green Movement. People living outside Iran, many of whom do not know anything about the country, were quick to pounce on the claim that Iran’s election was fraudulent. Not long after, two scholars went through all widely-published accusations and discredited them. As the Green Movement protesters picked up steam, many well-meaning Americans and Europeans rooted for whom the media told them were the good guys. The news from Iran was so difficult to ascertain that the hopeful relied on rumours as much as reporting. Twitter was the frequently-quoted medium that was apparently being used by the Green Movement to coordinate their actions. However, as Mehdi Yahyanejad, the manager of “Balatarin,” one of the Internet’s most popular Farsi-language websites, told the Washington Post, “Twitter’s impact inside Iran is zero…. Here, there is lots of buzz, but once you look… you see most of it are Americans tweeting among themselves.” Outsiders believed, for example, that Oxfordgirl, a Twitter profile, was, in her own words, “almost coordinating people’s individual movements” by cell phone on days of protests. She presumably hoped no one would mention that the Iranian government shut down cell phone networks on days of protests. It also made little sense for all the supposed protesters to tweet in English when they were in Iran. Oxfordgirl gained great publicity for herself, but did little to aid protesters.

The Green Movement was disappointing to those praying that Iran would collapse in on itself or undergo a democratic revolution. However, a revolution is not what all of its members were fighting for. The Greens have been better described as a civil rights movement than a revolutionary one. Siavash Saffari, a scholar at the University of Alberta, points to the various forms that protest in Iran has taken since last year’s election: a recent general strike in Iran’s Kurdish area, demands from labour organisations for rights and vigorous debate among Iranians about Iran’s direction. Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian studies at Colombia University, deplores the support the well-meaning crowd gave the Greens as typical, ignorant, self-indulgent Orientalism that is more likely to hurt relations with Iran than give the movement the support it needs. Twisted perceptions built up the Green Movement into something it was not and disillusion with it was inevitable. Only sober thinking will help us understand enough about Iran to make wise decisions regarding its nuclear programme.

Frankly, I am opposed to my having any power over another state’s goals, but the belief among Americans that the world’s business is America’s business is not about to go away. But perhaps the demonisation of Iran, its branding as a fanatical Muslim state desperate to get nuclear weapons so it can wipe Israel off the map could be dispelled with a little clarity. Iran is not Nazi Germany. It is not about to invade its neighbours or attempt to obliterate Israel. In fact, it probably could not if it wanted. In spite of its president’s posturing, Iran’s military budget is smaller per capita than any other state in the Gulf beside the UAE (an ally of the US). To whom does it pose a threat?

To Israel? To the Israeli Defense Forces, one of the best trained militaries in the world, with its nuclear arsenal and its ability to crush any military in the Middle East? I have discussed the infinitesimal likelihood Iran will attack Israel elsewhere. In my opinion, Israel is far more likely to use nuclear weapons on Iran than vice versa. Israel has been involved in numerous wars, large and small, since its founding in 1948. Iran has spent most of the last hundred and fifty years fighting colonialist oppression, and has not once in that time invaded a neighbour. Given their records, who is more likely to fire on whom?

Iran’s government is often accused of funding and supplying arms to Hamas. This support is then employed as an excuse not to talk to Iran, or Hamas as the case may be. However, former senior British diplomat Sir Jeremy Greenstock said in an interview with the BBC that Hamas is not politically tied to Iran. On a logical level, if Iran is supplying Hamas with arms, it is a sign of Iran’s weakness, not its strength. Hamas has no tanks, no aircraft, no ships, no artillery, no missiles besides Qassam rockets, which are so weak that of the nearly 10,000 fired at Israel in the past decade, just over 20 have actually killed anyone. It is well known that Iran supports Hezbollah (though that support recently came in the form of reconstruction aid, as Iran helped rebuild Lebanon after the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war), but like Hamas, Hezbollah poses little threat to Israel’s existence. Meanwhile, the Badr Corps, a key US ally in Iraq, was once part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The US government has designated the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organisation (even though it has never engaged in terrorism) and the Badr Corps a pillar of Iraq’s democracy.

In 2003, the US led an invasion of Iraq based partly on the testimony of a few exiled Iraqis and orientalist scholars who assured Americans they would be treated as liberators. Their Iranian counterparts and many of the same “experts” are providing Americans with the same lies in an attempt to lead the US into yet another foolish foreign adventure. Christopher Hitchens, for instance, who backed the invasion of Iraq, warns with his dispensable eloquence that Iran’s leaders might follow through on Ayatollah Kharrazi’s threat to establish a Greater Iran in Bahrain and the UAE. Such people have some difficulty in understanding people in other parts of the world because they are not able to put themselves in the shoes of those from other cultures. They believe that all the world’s people want democracy, which to them means political parties and a constitution. But Juan Cole, who has lived in and studied the Muslim world for many years, says that among Muslims he has met, democracy means freedom from foreign oppression. As ironic as it may seem, this revelation means that dictatorship would be viewed more favourably by Muslims than American-backed political competition. Iran, having suffered all manner of foreign intervention, is no exception.

Iran is probably developing a nuclear weapon, and its leaders will probably continue to promise violence. But a look at the evidence says there is little reason to worry that Iran’s leaders’ threats are worth heeding. What are we so afraid of? Listening to an adversary? Fortunately, the truth is available to all of us, waiting to be found, ready to disprove any of the fears that could warrant war with Iran.

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Iran is Nazi Germany and other fairy tales

Benny Morris is one of Israel’s so-called “new historians”, a group of relative misfits in Israeli academia who dared, in the 1980s, to contradict the traditional narratives about the birth of Israel. He was one of the first to shatter the once widely accepted belief in Israel that hundreds of thousands Palestinians had left their homes in 1948 (the Nakba) because invading Arab armies told them to (when in fact, it was because of Zionist violence). He has written several books since then and generally stuck to the facts. He has been considered pro-Palestinian and left-wing (refusing to serve in the West Bank during the first Intifada), but for the past decade or so he has become more of an ideologue, showing his true nationalist credentials.

Most recently, Morris wrote an opinion piece for the LA Times called “When Armageddon lives next door“. In it, he argues that President Barack is turning his back on Israel at a time when it is in mortal danger from Iran. Because Iran’s president has announced publicly that he wants to wipe Israel off the map, and because Iran seems to be building a nuclear bomb, Morris concludes that the US and Israel must attack Iran.

As with many like-minded people, Morris likens Iran with Nazi Germany. He reminds us that the international community did not take Hitler’s threats seriously until it was too late. Barack is too busy “obsessing over the fate of the ever-aggrieved Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip” and not spending enough time threatening Iran with military force. He says that Iran’s primary goal with its nuclear weapon is to destroy Israel. Engagement with Iran has failed and the US must either attack Iran itself or at least give Israel the green light to do so. “[T]he clock,” Morris warns us, “is ticking.”

Unfortunately, Benny Morris has been spending too much time reading Israeli newspapers and not enough time studying Iran. Morris’s article was written not by a historian but by an ideologue attempting to scare Americans into favouring war on Iran. His first mistake is his belief that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has the power to fire nuclear weapons at Israel. As Reza Aslan, who does study Iran, asserts, the president of Iran is effectively powerless. It is not the president but the mullahs who will decide on the use of Iran’s nuclear weapons, or any weapons. The president talks tough about Israel, but given the menacing climate among the Israeli press, Israeli public opinion and Israeli government statements, he would look cowardly not to. Iranians presumably voted for him (at least the first time) because hardliners are the choice of people who feel under threat of war. Moreover, Morris has committed the Poli Sci 101 fallacy in believing that, because a politician says something he is bound to put it into action.

Second, comparing Iran with Nazi Germany is slimy, populist rhetoric with no basis in fact. Nazi Germany was a racist regime that continuously fed its people with anti-Jewish, anti-communist, anti-everyone propaganda. Iran is multicultural, and has no record of turning on its ethnic minorities. There are over 10,000 Jews in Iran, and they are allocated one seat in the Iranian parliament. Nazi Germany was, at its height, one of the major military powers of the world. Iran will probably never be one. It is relatively small, a middle-income country, a third-rate military power that has never expressed irredentist territorial ambitions. It is rife with internal dissent and any major actions that would lead to war would be unpopular enough at least to unseat the government.

Third, Morris claims that Barack’s attempts at engagement with Iran have failed. However, the Barack administration has not tried to appeal to Iran. Barack has generally kept Iran in a headlock and called it reaching out. I think we can forgive Iranians for not taking, say, a flurry of effort to impose sanctions on Iran as engagement. Real diplomacy is not all sticks.

Fourth, Iran is trying to position itself as a protector of Muslims in the Middle East. Given that 16% of Israeli citizens are Muslims, and that a nuclear bomb would almost inevitably strike Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest city, how could Iran attack Israel with indiscriminate weapons and continue to hope for support from coreligionists?

Finally, as I have said repeatedly, Iran poses little military threat to Israel. All the people worrying about one or two bombs that could be fired at Israel ignore the fact that Israel has a large nuclear arsenal, most of which is likely aimed at various Iranian hotspots. Israel has one of the best trained and equipped militaries in the world. And it is close partners with the preeminent military superpower of our time. A nuclear strike on Israel would be justification enough for the US to join in Israel in attacking Iran, which would soon be reduced to rubble.

Alarmist rhetoric like Morris’s shows that he has strayed from a critically thinking and sober historian to a media hack that advocates the worst policies for Israel and the world. One thing he does know, however, is that fear is a powerful lever under the feet of those unacquainted with the facts.

Sanctions on Iran? Let’s be Daoist about it

The Menso Guide to War’s good friend President Barack is proposing sanctions on Iran. Actually, he is proposing further sanctions on Iran. The history of US sanctions on Iran goes back to the deposing of the shah and the hostage crisis of 1979. Barack thinks more sanctions would be a good way to get what he wants in the Middle East, and many Americans support him. I am afraid, however, he is wading in over his head.

The proposed bill targets Iran’s dependence on imports for gasoline. The UN Security Council has passed several resolutions condemning Iran’s enrichment of uranium, because it could use uranium to make a nuclear weapon. In fact, it may already have a nuclear weapon. More resolutions express more accepted condemnation and as such give measures like sanctions (or military action, depending what the resolutions say) more legitimacy. Iran has violated the Non-Proliferation Treaty. So sanctions are justified to make it stop enriching uranium, right?

Not so fast. Why does Barack want sanctions on Iran? Is it a punishment? My homegirl Hillary has said that, if the sanctions could just target the “relatively small group of decision makers inside Iran”, they could serve the US’s goals. True, it may weaken the regime financially but it would also hurt the people, as sanctions often do–think of the deepening of poverty in Iraq during the 1990s. For instance, the $2b in Citibank belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that the US government froze in 2008 will likely be made up from other assets the Guard own in Iran. Someone always ends up paying, and it is rarely the elites. The people would be pushed into the hands of the hardliners, as I argue they already have been for years since the demonisation of Iran began under Bill Clinton and got no better under George Bush. This outside push on Iran is why a fool like Ahmadinejad can get elected there in the first place. If history is any guide, the people will not turn on their government if threatened or impoverished but run to it for protection.

Will tougher sanctions force a change in policy? Do Iranians even have a right to nuclear technology? For years now, the Iranian government has made it quite clear that it will enrich uranium whether the outside world likes it or not. And why should it? It has become part of the status quo that India, Israel and Pakistan all have nuclear weapons, and though they (along with North Korea) are the only four states not party to the non proliferation treaty, they are allies of the US. Israel gets into wars all the time: in the 62 years since 1948, Israel has fought 7 wars and 2 intifadas. India and Pakistan are continually at odds with one another, and though I disagree with him on Iran, Christopher Hitchens believes the India-Pakistan conflict is the most likely of the world to turn nuclear. Meanwhile, the US is trying to isolate Iran in the kind of double standard that makes international politics the confusing mess it is. If anyone tries to force Iran to give up nuclear capability of any kind, they will look like bullies and hypocrites.

Barack is using a sizeable amount of his political capital in the Security Council drumming up support for sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, the US government talks about how much it would like to talk to Iran and gently persuade it to do the right thing, but the ayatollahs just won’t cooperate. American politicians claim to be wide open to talking to Iran but wide open to bombing it to rubble as well. These arguments play well to the same voters as believe the mindless cliche that our enemies only understand the language of force. Aside from the fact that the claim that the US government is trying to engage Iran is doubtful, how do Hillary and Barack expect the Iranians to open up when they have been pushed away for two decades? You cannot push others away with one hand and expect them to shake your other one.

There seems to be surprisingly little discussion in Washington at the moment about the consequences of putting away all sanctions on Iran. If only American political culture were less impulsive and more Daoist. Daoism considers peace first. It favours non-action, which would be a propitious innovation for a culture that feels the need to move quickly forward in any direction. Daoists remain open minded and flexible, not committed to a single way of thinking, especially after that way has failed. And it believes in relativism, that what path might be right for one may not be right for all.

Perhaps that is why the Chinese government has said that more sanctions on Iran may not be necessary right now, and that it may be prudent to wait. (In truth, I believe Chinese government ideology is pragmatism, not Daoism, but Daoism is a good way to contrast the foreign affairs of the US and China.) It has declared its preference for dialogue over punishment. The Chinese government makes a habit of stating that it is not Chinese policy to interfere in other states’ affairs. It has backed sanctions in the past because like all nuclear powers it does not want anyone new in the club. But perhaps Chinese officials have realised that there are other ways to deal with adamant people.

Why are we so afraid of a nuclear Iran? It is not as if possession of nuclear weapons makes it likely or even possible to use them. The proliferation of nuclear weapons has made them all but useless. Yet Barack has made disarmament a major part of his foreign policy.

I am looking forward to a day when Daoists run the US State Department and liberals run the Revolutionary Guard. Perhaps then we will be able to talk to each other.

The demonisation of Iran

On Thursday, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a public address that he believed Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapon. Iran’s possessing the bomb would be “potentially a very, very destabilizing outcome. On the other hand,” he said, “when asked about striking Iran, specifically, that also has a very, very destabilizing outcome…. I think it so important is that we continue internationally, diplomatically, politically — not just we, the United States, but the international community — continue to focus on this to prevent those two outcomes.”

Some people might say that the obvious course is to strike now while the iron is hot. They are wrong. The US should not be pushing for regime change in Iran, which at any rate is unlikely at this time. The answer is to engage with Iran and, over time, make it an ally.

The Islamic Republic has not always been anti-American. Those with good memories will remember that, before Ahmadinejad, Iran had two moderate, “reformist” presidents in power: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Seyed Mohammad Khatami. They urged cooperation with the West, reconciliation with the US and domestic freedoms. Rafsanjani spoke last July in support of the pro-democracy activists, and Khatami won the 2009 Global Dialogue Prize, and officially repudiated the fatwa on Salman Rushdie.

During the 1990s, Iran’s governments were interested in improving relations with the US, but the Clinton administration pushed Iran away. Iran offered the American oil firm Conoco a contract, chosen over other foreign oil companies in order to improve ties with the US, and the Clinton administration imposed sanctions on Iran in 1995.

Oil producers do not control the US government in the way most people imagine. War and sanctions are not in many oilmen’s interest. Sanctions prevent the development of oil fields by American companies and award them to rival companies from rival countries that do not participate in the sanctions regime. While security and stability are necessary to pump and transport oil, war produces instability. Whenever the US imposes sanctions on countries such as Iran, Iraq and Libya, or goes to war with countries like Iraq, it does so counter to US oil interests, not in line with them. As could have been expected, Conoco’s parent company, DuPont, lobbied against hurting its business.

But the sanctions came along anyway. In fact, the sanctions on Iran came at the behest of the Israel Lobby, the collection of hardline, right wing, Zionist pressure groups in the US whose actions have led to numerous strategic blunders for the US, including the subject at hand. In 1994, the US’s second most powerful lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), circulated a paper called “Comprehensive US sanctions against Iran: a plan for action”. It sought to close all of the loopholes American companies squeezed through to do business with Iran. Bill Clinton, under pressure from the Israel Lobby, scuttled the Conoco deal, and banned all American oil companies from helping Iran develop its oil fields.

In Autumn 2001, Iran helped facilitate the toppling of the Taliban regime and its replacement with the friendly government of Hamid Karzai. Iranians even held candlelight vigils to commemorate those who died on 9/11. President Khatami took these moves to mean relations with the US would improve. Instead, in 2002, George Bush placed Iran in the Axis of Evil, indicating he was keen on regime change there as well.

In 2003, after the US invaded Iraq, Bush publicly pressured Syria and Iran. Neocons and the Israel Lobby, apparently under the delusion that they could rearrange the entire Middle East, began pushing for a zero tolerance policy against Iran. Neocons accused Tehran of harbouring al-Qaeda operatives, though the CIA and the State Department thought it unlikely. Norman Podhoretz, part of the Israel Lobby, wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal in 2007 entitled “The Case for Bombing Iran: I hope and pray that President Bush will do it.” John Hagee of Christians United for Israel told AIPAC “it is 1938; Iran is Germany and Ahmadinejad is the new Hitler.”Retired general Wesley Clark, when asked why he was worried the US would go to war with Iran, said “[y]ou just have to read what’s in the Israeli press. The Jewish community is divided but there is so much pressure being channeled from the New York money people to the office seekers.” He was, predictably, lambasted as an anti-Semite. But as Matthew Yglesias wrote at the time, “everyone knows [what Clark said was] true.”

George Bush said his administration was willing to go to war with Iran to protect Israel. (The Israel Lobby’s leaders were quick to distance themselves from Bush’s statements, as they did not want to seem like the cause of the US’s unilateral belligerence.) All the 2008 presidential candidates echoed Bush’s remarks. While campaigning, Barack Obama said

“There is no greater threat to Israel, or to the peace and stability of the region, than Iran…. Let there be no doubt: I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel…. I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon… everything.”

Now, perhaps having seen the folly of this position, or perhaps because he had been speaking to AIPAC when he said it, Barack has since softened his position and extended a hand to Iran.

I believe it is unlikely that the Iranian government will be easily induced to give up its development of nuclear weapons (assuming, which we should, it is indeed attempting to produce them). Nukes are good for regimes who face an existential threat. It is understandable to prepare for war with a country like the US, which has started two wars with Iran’s immediate neighbours, and Israel, which publishes daily headlines that scream of the colossal threat posed by Tehran’s nuclear bomb and the necessity of preventing them from acquiring one. President Barack wants to eliminate them but doing so would require extremely costly incentives (eg. lots of money and security guarantees for countries like North Korea) or disincentives (eg. war). And if possessing the bomb is the best way to win a prize, what is to stop everyone from having them?

Therefore, relevant questions include the following: Will Iran use nuclear weapons against Israel or the US? I doubt it. If an Iranian missile landed on the US or Israel, those two countries together would walk all over Iran. Let them have a nuclear weapon. They will not use it.

Will it give them to terrorists who will use them on everyone? This is an unrealistic prospect. First, Iran wants to keep its foes on their toes, but does not want to destroy the world. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric is just posturing. Men love to strut and posture and look tough. Men build big guns and missiles and hold military parades to feel good about themselves. Some men will always talk tough, even if, behind the scenes, they are actually hoping they will not have to carry through.

Second, most terrorists have no ability to detonate a nuclear weapon. As John Mueller explains, a nuclear bomb is not a toy. It is very hard to assemble and use, and will not simply blow up the world if tapped with a hammer. Moreover, if Iran supplied terrorists with weapons, intelligence agencies would find out and governments would fiercely punish Iran.

It is time for the US to engage with Iran. Doing so would lead Iran’s government to assist in stabilising Afghanistan and Iraq, two unstable zones that could produce anti-Western terrorism and contribute to radicalising the Middle East and Central Asia. Indian foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon said in 2008, “Frankly, from our point of view, the more engagement there is, the more Iran becomes a factor of stability in the region, the better is is for us all.” The fact is, we need all the help we can get, and we do not need another intractable conflict. The State Department, the CIA and the US military all favour direct discussion with Iran’s leaders, as does a majority of Americans. In 2006, the Iraq Study Group urged talks with Iran and Syria, which was initially rejected by the Bush administration who thought it was doing just fine in Iraq without them.

So they continued to refer to Iran as the most dangerous country in the world. Gallup polls indicate that the percentage of Americans who believe Iran is their greatest enemy has increased every year since 2001. The reason might be that rhetoric on Iran has gone up concurrently. US and Israeli warmongerers want us to believe it to buoy support for military action. They believe that, by eliminating all enemies, they can be secure. But when we attempt to destroy all enemies, we imperil our own security most, because everyone will mistrust us, and most will defend themselves.

Talk of war tends to push the potential victims of that war into the hands of tough-talking governments. To both decry Ahmadinejad’s election and threaten Iran is to defeat one’s purpose. There are wiser solutions.

Another Gallup poll of Americans taken in 2007 showed a clear majority in favour of economic and diplomatic efforts to induce Iran to give up its nuclear program. The survey then asked those who were in favour of economic and diplomatic efforts, if such efforts failed, would you support a military strike? 55% said no. Even despite the rhetoric, even though most of them believe Iran is trying to acquire a nuclear weapon, Americans are largely not in favour of further military action against the US’s latest “enemy”.

They have probably not yet forgotten how we were all duped into supporting the war against Saddam. All the same transparent words are being used: evil, irrational, radical, WMDs and so on. Yet, aside from interfering with American wars on its borders, a rational act given that tying down the US in Iraq and Afghanistan makes it less able to attack Iran, Iran has never attacked the US or Israel. Why would it do so now?

Are we afraid because Iran’s government is a pack of religious fanatics with an apocalyptic worldview that puts them on a collision course with civilisation? People who take this view tend also to see everyone an American newspaper might call “jihadists” in the same light: ready to kill themselves and everyone else to bring on the end of the world. The differences among these groups are significant and often ignored. Iran’s Islamic revolution was a nationalist one, and though it supports other Shia groups in the Middle East against Western interests, this has been largely in reaction to isolation and demonisation by America and Israel, not to spread holy war. It does not support groups like al-Qaeda, though I am sure that if they get desperate, the Israel Lobby and Neocons will fabricate evidence that they do.

Being religious does not mean being stupid. Everyone responds to carrots and sticks. Iran’s leaders have shown they can be reasonable and even friendly to foreign interests, including those of the Great Satan, and may be again. Besides, if religious fanatics could not be negotiated with, no one would ever have approached the Bush White House.

Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett recommend Barack give up his “half-hearted” approach to diplomacy with Iran and look to Richard Nixon’s example. Nixon flew to China during the Cultural Revolution and the Vietnam War. Since then, the US has been committed to engagement with the Chinese government. Barack could be the president that flies to Tehran.

Power no longer comes from wars of words or wars of bullets. It comes from close, lasting relationships with other people and governments. The benefits to engaging Iran are a new ally, a more stable Middle East and Central Asia, and a more trustworthy nuclear partner. The benefits to castigating Iran serve only the warmongering elite. It is time to reconcile American and Iranian interests and end the demonisation of the US’s chosen enemy.

Questions on Iran’s future

Iran is at a crossroads. We do not know what is going to happen, because its near future depends on the next move of an opaque government. Everyone is asking if it will crack down harder or somehow relent. I do not have many answers but I do have a lot of questions.

First, questions for people who back Mir Hossein Mousavi. His supporters, including most “Westerners”, are certain Ahmadinejad’s government rigged the election. Sure, there is some evidence that the election was stolen and should have gone to Mousavi, but how can we be sure? Did you witness the election? We are so quick to let our biases get in the way that if the pro-Western leader loses and self-identified Westerners are told he may have been cheated, all of sudden everyone believes it.

Second are my questions for Iran’s government. If the government cracks down on demonstrators and institutes martial law and more repression, will it work? Will angry Iranians hold back? Can they be repressed? A million people, or even more, were in the streets of Tehran. And in case the government has learned nothing from its own history, the clerics should open the books up and look at 1979.

So more repression could backfire terribly for the ruling elites. But what is their alternative? Elites will do anything to avoid losing power. They will not simply step aside and let angry young people sweep them out. That will only happen if the protest reaches critical mass and overwhelms the security forces. Even if the govt backs down, what are they going to do? Would they satisfy all the demands of the demonstrators? Or just enough to keep them quiet? Would they put Mousavi in power? What about those who voted for Ahmadinejad? Will they just roll over and accept it?

Here is a hard question for the same people. Is Mousavi so great? He preaches a message of liberalism, of which I like the sound, but look at his history. A leader of the Islamic Revolution, who approved of the seizing of the hostages at the US embassy; PM during the Iran-Iraq war, when a million people died (though that was instigated by Saddam); one time member of the leadership council of Hezbollah, and does not recognise Israel. Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says “Mousavi is Ahmadinejad without the invective or anger.” That description does not fill me with hope. Would he be more likely than Ahmadinejad to give up building nuclear weapons? (According to the Jerusalem Post, no.) Given Iran’s Ayatollah-centered political system, does he even have that choice?

Iran’s future is in the hands of its government. It must choose wisely, balancing its desire for the status quo with a realistic handling of the crisis of confidence in its rule. Unless there is another revolution, do not expect a new, liberal democratic Iran any time soon.

One week reading Israeli and Palestinian newspaper bias

Day 6

Today we will start by looking at an Israeli paper, then a Palestinian one, then one that claims neutrality.

Yedioth Ahronoth

Wikipedia calls Yedioth Ahronoth (“latest news” in Hebrew) the most widely circulated paper in Israel since the 1970s. It gives right- and left-wing commentary, though it is seen as more of a tabloid than a newspaper.

The big news today is Netanyahu’s speech at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He will be laying his policies out plain, they say. They also say he will give his support to the idea of a Palestinian state, but that it must be a demilitarised state. How a demilitarised state could keep its independence I do not know. The leader writes of this and shows photographs of protestors. In one, some women are holding signs saying “NO settlements/apartheid wall/Gaza siege”, and in another photo, counterpoint to the first, people are waving Israeli flags and holding a banner in Hebrew that I can’t read, but which the article reliably informs me reads “Barack Hussein Obama – an anti-Semite and hater of Jews”.

The next headline reads “Iran reformists: annul vote”. “Ahmadinejad rivals Mousavi, Karroubi say they will file an appeal to annul ‘illegitimate’ results of nationwide election”. Well, if you like. I doubt it would do anything. In the Israeli press, the assumption is that the Iranian election was rigged and fraudulent. I wonder if it really was. An op-ed embed in this story asks “The beginning of the end? Young Iranians may topple Ayatollah regime in wake of elections fiasco.” It should have been titled “Wishful thinking? Israelis hope young Iranians will topple the Ayatollah”.

You see, if all you read is Israeli newspapers, you will probably just presume the vote was fraudulent, along with the fact that Iran is about to declare nuclear war on Israel. So you could have trouble seeing that it is possible Ahmadinejad won the popular vote, or that the ruling clerics might be popular. There is certainly some evidence of violence and vote rigging. Do they mean the Iranian election should have gone to second-choice Mousavi? Are enough Iranians going to be angry enough with the result that they will take down the government?

The next headline down in Yedioth Ahronoth is about Jimmy Carter. Despite the protest we read about yesterday, he met with the town council of Gush Etzion, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. The local council says it changed Mr Carter’s perceptions. A seemingly carefully selected group was brought into council leader Shaul Goldstein’s house to meet with Carter. The group included two religious leaders, two women who had lost family members to terrorists, and a pair of newlyweds who said that, if there were limits to the natural growth of settlements, they could not raise a family in Gush Etzion.

A link in this article leads to the report on Noam Shalit giving a letter to the former US president for his son Gilad. Unlike Haaretz, the Yedioth Ahronoth website does not have a timer counting the number of seconds Gilad Shalit has been kidnapped. It does, however, have the exact number of days, 1083, printed in the article.

Arab Media Internet Network

At first glance, AMIN is structured like the Palestine Chronicle: journalists write new articles every day or so and submit them to the newspaper. As a result, the links to all the old articles are down the sides of the page. There seem to be many more articles in Arabic than in English. According to Google Translate, this site does not translate from English to Arabic or vice versa. Here is a selection of the articles in Arabic. (Bear in mind that Google Translate is imperfect and it is not always possible to capture the shades of meaning of other languages.)

Is the establishment of a Palestinian state in the interest of Palestinians?

Palestinians pin their hopes on others

Suffering of prisoners and the suffering of 40 years of occupation

Exposing racism in the Israeli police and security forces

An Israeli ministerial committee ratifies a law against commemorating the Nakba

The Arabic headlines seem slightly more angry than the English ones. Here are some of them.

Will the Netanyahu government make progress toward peace?

Obama’s song and dance in Cairo

Oslo redux: Fool’s gold in Israel/Palestine

While I will not translate the full Arabic articles, the English articles are nonetheless pro-Palestinian. But they are well-written and full of insightful analysis. The article on if the Netanyahu government’s progress on peace, for instance, discusses why it may, though gives six reasons why it probably will not. Popular, hawkish governments are sometimes the ones who make real progress toward real solutions. This journalist, Elias Tuma, a professor emeritus at the University of California, recalls how similar leaders such as Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin have surprisd us by signing lasting peace treaties. Being a strong leader, says Tuma categorically, “Natanyahu is capable of reaching and signing a peace agreement with Palestinians.” Then he gives six reasons why he might not.

First, Avigdor Lieberman, Foreign Minister and Deputy PM, submitted a bill to the Knesset banning commemoration of the Nakba. Second, Lieberman’s party submitted a bill demanding that Israeli Arabs recognise Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state. Third, the same party demands that Israeli Arabs serve in the military or another civic institution. Failure to do either of the last two results in loss of citizenship. Fourth, another party in the ruling coalition submitted a bill to declare that Jordan is Palestine. In other words, the Palestinians can leave Israel and go there. (I read about this idea elsewhere. It is really stupid. They might as well have declared that Russia is Israel.) It is not just cracks that support this bill: its supporters include three cabinet ministers. Fifth, Netanyahu has not accepted the two-state solution yet. Well, actually he has, but this article came two days before his speech where he said he accepted it. Sixth, Netanyahu insists on continuing construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Well, actually he said that new settlements would not be allowed, but natural growth of existing settlements (which are numerous) would be allowed. History will bear out the accuracy of this analysis. I think Elias Tuma is right.

Many of the articles are out of date, speculating on what Netanyahu (or even Barack) will say in his speech. This past weekend was something of a game changer because of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech and the election in Iran, so they are not so relevant anymore. One final note of interest on this site: there are a number of books in Arabic, written by Palestinians about Israel. If I could read Arabic, I would love to delve that much deeper into the experiences of Palestinians by reading them.

Bitter Lemons

Bitterlemons.org (subtitle: Palestinian-Israeli crossfire) is a project, financially supported by the European Union, to present Israeli and Palestinian viewpoints on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and peace process. It “maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli components.”

Bitter Lemons offers a long list of links to such pertinent documents as Security Council resolutions; International Court of Justice decisions; the Athens Plan, a 2005 initiative calling for Israel to disengage from Gaza and the Northern West Bank; statements by political leaders; and other agreements and plans dating back to the founding of Israel.

I also appreciate that you can very easily access back editions all the way to 2001; and each weekly edition addresses a different topic. Some of the most recent are Obama’s Cairo speech; In the aftermath of Pope Benedict’s visit; and West Bank-Israel security issues. Many of the same contributors write in each edition. This week’s is Netanyahu’s speech on the peace process.

“A Palestinian View”: Ghassan Khatib calls Netanyahu’s speech “a failed public relations exercise” that “catered to the right-wing constituency that put him in the position he is in.” (An English transcript of his speech can be found here.) After taking apart Netanyahu’s “farcical” concept of a Palestinian state, Khatib says that the entity Netanyahu describes is not a state at all. I agree wholeheartedly, and will explain why tomorrow. Khatib continues by saying that the speech is a threat to peace, and that the American administration must clean up the mess. He also acknowledges the radicalisation of Palestinian opinion, and that this speech will not help that either. Mr Khatib is a former minister of the Palestinian Authority.

“An Israeli View”: Responding to pressure from Washington, the Israeli prime minister and his advisors thought of the best way they could address US government demands and throw them out at the same time: “give everyone–the US administration, his coalition, the Palestinians–a little of what they want. Confuse them, too. But also do something dramatic to satisfy the Americans.” He avoided confronting the real issues, and is “steeped in Revisionist ideology”. His coalition, meanwhile, will hold.

“A Palestinian View” (I do not really like the whole identity thing but I suppose it is relevant): Mr Netanyahu’s speech was “the death of hopes for peace and a Palestinian state.” Is that not a little premature and pessimistic? Anyway, the writer, a professor at Al-Quds University, goes on. He speaks of the PM’s invocation of Abraham when he said that the West Bank, like the rest of Israel, is Jewish and Israeli and whatever else makes it ours because it is the land of Abraham. But, says the writer, Abraham is a prophet of the Christians and the Muslims too. Are they not all his children? This article gets bitter. Though of course the Israelis, especially the government, should understand Palestinian viewpoints, the ones this writer mentions are the kind that Netanyahu’s base would reject out of hand. It therefore speaks less to Israelis in a position to do something and more to the already bitter. This man should aim his lemons higher.

“An Israeli View”: This final article, also bitter, blames the Palestinians for repudiating Mr Netanyahu’s acceptance of a Palestinian state. Moreover, “[h]ad they accepted Netanyahu’s offer, I have no doubt that there would have emerged in Israel an unprecedented consensus favoring a Palestinian state.” But that is like saying, if you offer me a bowl of rice off your banquet table, I should accept it graciously; and if not, I do not deserve it. This writer, a columnist for Haaretz, said that “they repeatedly reject Israel’s generous offers”. So it’s all their fault.

I very much enjoyed reading Bitter Lemons, because even what I do not agree with, I appreciate as a well-reasoned perspective. I can conclude that, as far as I have read, they do indeed uphold their position in the centre of the road. Tomorrow, I will draw conclusions from my week reading Israeli and Palestinian newspaper bias.

One week at the throats of newspapers at the throat of the Holy Land

Day 5

I get the newspapers I am reading from two lists, found here and here. I am hobbled somewhat in my weeklong endeavor by not knowing Arabic or Hebrew, but there seem to be a variety of news sources in English. Some of them are niche media, and others have wide appeal, and most are important because of the people they represent and influence. Unfortunately, as we shall see, they are not all equally worthy of our time.

The Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy

I like global dialogue and democracy. Let’s take a look.

This organisation’s vision is an independent, democratic Palestinian state. The leader has a picture and headline about George Mitchell shaking hands with Mahmoud Abbas. This is Week in Review. For some reason this paper is also called Miftah (and is at miftah.org), which is shorter than the Palestinian Initiative… so I will call it Miftah. According to Miftah, “[t]his week was all about diplomacy”. US envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Miftah says “Mitchell basically carried the message of his big boss, US President Barack Obama, urging the Israeli government to freeze settlement activity while pushing for its acceptance of the two-state solution.” Notice the words used. “Basically” sounds to me like “only”, implying that the big boss is calling the shots and the Israeli government has heard it before.

This article talks about potentially reassuring moves from the United States, and after each point begins a paragraph with “Still…” to say why things might not be wonderful yet. And for a recap, this article has some small stories. “Occupation authorities” (that’s the Israeli government) forced a man named Mohammed Gosheh to demolish his own home. When newspapers want to bring out your emotions, they make things personal, giving you a victim, a specific person you can feel sorry for.

A special report on “the Myth of Incitement in Palestinian Textbooks” is a prominent link. The Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace, an organisation not described in this article, only named, “persisently” publishes articles on how textbooks produced and read by Palestinians incite hatred against Jews. As I said, this piece does not describe the Center, except to say that “the Center’s first director, Itamar Marcus, is a right wing Israeli supporter and resident of the West Bank settlement of Efrat.”

“The Center’s work reveals a deeply flawed methodology aimed at misleading the reader.” Unfortunately, we do not know anything about that methodology because, again, this paper does not describe it. I personally have trouble believing that the textbooks do not make people angry, as I find history books to be a hugely powerful propaganda tool. (Read this post for related discussion.) However, if I were a Palestinian, I would probably be pretty angry at the Israelis for everything. History books, newspapers, word of mouth: all carry stories about very bad things the Israelis have done to the Palestinians. And when an identity such as “Israeli” or “Palestinian” is thrust upon us, we usually want to defend its collective manifestation to the death.

This article was not particularly well written, as you only need to see what it leaves out to find its bias. More useful, therefore, are the 23 links it provides to back up its premise. Many of them are to Miftah and even Geocities, but some are to the European Union. One final note on this long list of links that supposedly proves this journalist’s point: the links to Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post are dead. Did the newspapers themselves take the stories out? Or are there not really any stories in those papers about the myth of incitement in Palestinian textbooks? Or am I reading something into nothing?

The heading that caught my eye fastest was actually the second from the top, but I resisted reading it until the apparently more important meetings of George Mitchell and the bulldozing of Mohammed Gosheh’s house. The heading reads “Doughnuts for Residency”. “Anyone who knows Arab culture,” the item reads, “will know that a sweet treat is usually offered by the bearer of good news.” (That could be useful to know.) The writer just bought doughnuts because she finally got her residency permit, which make her a legal resident of Jerusalem. She has lived there for 11 years already. The reason she and her husband have had to wait so long for a permit to live together, she writes, as if I could not guess, are the “complicated and extremely discriminatory” laws designed to screw with Arabs. The writer of this article has some very angry things to say about Israeli law, though she hides her anger under smooth-flowing, personal-feeling prose.

Miftah is not only news. As far as I can tell, it is more of a think tank, with leadership and policy programmes, and links to other organisations, such as Al-Quds 2009, where I found these evocative paintings by a Palestinian artist.

Jerusalem Newswire

I get an idea of this paper’s orientation from its main headline: “Israelis tell ‘Bibi: Reject Obama’s demands”. Right underneath this was a link for donations reading “Help keep JNW on the front lines of the media war”. I did not know the media were at war as well.

The main article says that “a strong majority” (clarified later in the article as “nearly six out of ten”) of Israelis told Binyamin Netanyahu that they do not want anyone building a Palestinian state in Israel on land that, really, is just for Jews. The journalist discusses Netanyahu’s speech this coming Sunday, where he is expected to address “President Barack Obama’s belligerent foray into Middle East politics, the Israeli-‘Palestinian’ conflict and the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel – an issue Washington has relegated to a position of secondary importance.” So Barack’s reaching out to Muslims is belligerence, the ‘Palestinians’ have no legitimate argument and Iran’s nukes are no longer interesting to the US. The final paragraph is on the two-state “‘solution’ [which] calls for the peace-loving Israelis to give their land to the Jew-hating Palestinian Arabs who remain committed to destroying what would be left of Israel.” This writer’s bias is palpable and his inability to see clearly on this issue makes this whole article a joke. And when I realise that this whole website is written by the same author, I find it is he who is the joke. Let us try again.

Arutz Sheva (Channel Seven)

At IsraelNationalNews.com, Arutz Sheva is Israel’s #1 news site, eh? Does that mean #1 for feelings of superiority and hatred too? There is only one way to find out.

The leader is about Jimmy Carter. Because three days ago Jimmy Carter declared “Mideast peace is impossible without Hamas”, and yesterday won an award from the Palestinian Authority, residents of a Jewish town he is planning to visit called Gush Etzion “express their disapproval of the meeting.” The article quotes a grassroots committee who issued a statement reading “Carter has always, and will always, speak up and defend those who wish to destroy the State of Israel. He pushes an anti-Israel agenda, while presenting himself as a good-willed broker who seeks peace and is ready to listen to ‘both sides.’ This makes him all the more dangerous.” This article is designed to pick Carter apart so thoroughly as to be able to counterpunch his every argument and deed. And it claims only to be quoting from a letter by an unofficial group in a Jewish town of 44,000. Perhaps this newspaper believes the group speaks for all Jews.

According to this article in another newspaper, Arutz Sheva is a religious Zionist radio station and is viewed as the voice of the Israeli settler movement. Also known as Arutz-7, it has been shut down by the authorities for being pirate radio (transmitted from a boat and over the internet). Gush Etzion, as you may have guessed, is in the West Bank, not far from Bethlehem. Along with the two-state solution, the question of Jewish settlers in the West Bank seems the most controversial, and both are being pushed hard by the Americans. Therefore, if we want to understand the issues, we should listen to the settlers. Whether you agree with it or not, Arutz Sheva is an important read.

Israel’s foreign ministry says that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s electoral win in Iran means the world must act now. Actually, it does not say what action we, the world, must take. All Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is quoted as saying is that “the international community must continue to act in an uncompromising manner to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear [weapons] and to cease its support for terror organizations and destabilization of the Middle East.” No specifics on what we should do or what Iran does.

An article near the top is about a rocket fired by “Gaza Arab terrorists” that did not hit anyone or do any damage. The Palestinian Authority blames Israel (though I do not know how you could blame a country for something) for wild boars in Samaria that are destroying Palestinians’ crops. Israel (again I wonder who) is apparently doing its best to cull the hungry swine. And while I was thinking the Jerusalem Newswire was just a radical rag, I found an article just like the one I turned my nose up at earlier. 56% of 503 survey respondents said that Netanyahu does not need to agree to freeze construction of settlements in the West Bank. The good thing about this article is that it can teach you about each major Israeli political party, because the writer breaks down how the supporters of each answered the survey. 81% of those who vote Likud said Israel can continue building settlements, whereas 68% of those who vote Kadima believe Israel has no choice but to give in to American demands to halt construction. It is clear that Likud voters (and the party that answers to them) are tough and steadfast, and Kadima voters are a bunch of pussies.