Month: June 2017

Far from normalization

Here is an interview I did a few days ago with Hamid Bayati of the Mehr News agency in Tehran: 

Q: As you know US Senate move to impose new sanctions on Tehran over its missile program, so how do you evaluate this act?

A: My sense is that the Congress is concerned about Iran’s development of nuclear capable missiles and may well impose new sanctions to try to block their further development.

Q: Tehran says Iran’s defensive missile program is legitimate, in full conformity with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, and no move can deprive Iran from its legitimate rights, what do you think about this?

A: Tehran has a pretty good argument about UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which appeals to Iran not to undertake “any activity related” to nuclear capable missiles but does not prohibit it:

Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology, until the date eight years after the JCPOA Adoption Day or until the date on which the IAEA submits a report confirming the Broader Conclusion, whichever is earlier.

But so far as I can tell nor does the resolution prohibit the US from imposing its own new sanctions related to ballistic missiles.

Q: Iran says approval of a new bill imposing sanctions on Iran’s non-nuclear activities means violation of JCPOA, so what do you think about nuclear agreement in respect of US anti Iran acts?

A: The JCPOA provisions on sanctions, in particular US sanctions, are complicated:

Article 26:  The United States will make best efforts in good faith to sustain this JCPOA and to prevent interference with the realisation of the full benefit by Iran of the sanctions lifting specified in Annex II. The U.S. Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from re-introducing or reimposing the sanctions specified in Annex II that it has ceased applying under this JCPOA, without prejudice to the dispute resolution process provided for under this JCPOA. The U.S. Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions. Iran has stated that it will treat such a re-introduction or re-imposition of the sanctions specified in Annex II, or such an imposition of new nuclear-related sanctions, as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.

Article 29: The EU and its Member States and the United States, consistent with their respective laws, will refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalisation of trade and economic relations with Iran inconsistent with their commitments not to undermine the successful implementation of this JCPOA.

Article 26 refers to “best efforts in good faith…consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress.” My understanding is that the Senate has removed some provisions in the new sanctions bill that were thought to possibly violate these articles, but I imagine that is not satisfactory from Iran’s perspective. Detailed discussion between Washington and Iran will likely be needed to resolve these issues.

That said, there is the broader point in Article 29 that the US should not undermine the benefits Iran derives from the JCPOA. My impression is that the Trump Administration is coming around to that point of view, because economic normalization is needed to ensure that Iran maintains its nuclear commitments under the JCPOA. But as a practical matter normalization of trade and economic relations will occur mainly with Europe, Russia, China, and the rest of the world. I think we are still far away from normalization with the U.S., because of views in both Washington and Tehran.

Q: What do you think about regime change in Iran that Mr. Tillerson talk about it?

A: Mr. Tillerson can wish for a unicorn too, but that will not make one appear. That said, Iranians, like Americans, should be asking themselves what they want. Many things in the world have changed since 1979. Certainly the American system has evolved since then.

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At Tuesday’s panel “The Syrian Conflict and Regional Security,” hosted by the Turkish Heritage Organization, the complex web of military alliances and political tensions entwining Turkey, Iraq, the United States, and Kurdish forces against ISIS took center stage.

Turkey considers the People’s Protection Units (YPG)—the military wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)—a terrorist group. Yet the United States, Turkey’s NATO ally, is arming the YPG in order to further the fight against ISIS.

To smooth tensions, the United States has promised to give Turkey lists of the weapons it has provided to the YPG, and to ensure that they are not used in Turkey. Moreover, added panelist Michael Doran, although the Trump administration is willing to work with the YPG in order to defeat ISIS in Syria, the president will not tolerate a PKK state in Syria. The PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, is a left-wing organization based in Turkey and Iraq engaged in a long-term armed conflict with the Turkish state. It seeks to establish a state of Kurdistan.

Despite these assurances, tensions between the United States and Turkey persist over the Kurdish issue.

Central to the problem, explained General Mark Kimmitt, is the fact that in order to maintain cordial US-Turkey relations and prevent partisan US involvement in regional Kurdish politics, the YPG must eventually comply with a US policy of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR). Yet the United States has already armed and trained the Kurdish rebels. It is unclear how disarming the YPG would be accomplished. Turkey is wary of possible complications.

With ISIS’s expulsion from Raqqa finally on the horizon, the future of Syria hangs in the balance. No one, admitted Doran, appears to know the American plan. It is possible that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad will be allowed to govern, but this arrangement will not sit well with the United States for long if the Assad regime attracts Iranian presence in Syria. On the Kurdish question, “most Kurds don’t want the PKK forever,” observed Denise Natali of the National Defense University. However, it’s not clear how they will leave Iraq and northeastern Syria. The PKK helps local populations by providing badly needed electricity, jobs, and salaries.

Natali believes it is possible for Turkey to maintain relations with non-PKK affiliated Syrian Kurds in the northeastern part of the country. Syrian Kurds are not ultimately moved to militancy by ideological considerations. Rather, their concerns are material. They need salaries. The PYD has actually maintained a relationship with the Assad regime throughout the Syrian civil war. They continue to receive government paychecks. Natali anticipates that the Assad government will prevail and negotiate with vulnerable Kurdish rebel leaders. Even with the Kurds’ territorial expansion, Kurdistan is landlocked. This increases the incentive to negotiate.

Ultimately, observed Doran and Natali, neither Turkey nor the United States—nor any of the countries in the Levant and Middle East region—want to see Syria or Iraq fracture into smaller sectarian or ethnic states post-ISIS. Natali further believes that such fracturing is highly unlikely. In the meantime, as Turkey and the United States adopt distinct approaches to opposing ISIS, the two NATO allies will remain at odds over the decision to arm YPG forces.

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Mahmoudiya at peace

This event yesterday commemorated a successful tribal reconciliation effort in Mahmoudiya, a qadaa south of Baghdad known in 2007 as the “Triangle of Death.” I supported and participated in this effort as a vice president at the United States Institute of Peace, conducted in cooperation with the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division. The video is unfortunately more than 70 minutes, but it documents that rare bird: a demonstrably successful peacebuilding effort (in an area in which Al Qaeda was an active belligerent), based on civilian and military cooperation. 

Here is the written agreement that initiated a process that has continued to limit violence in the area. I’ll add some notes here about how it was done and why it has lasted when I have a bit more time.  

With gratitude to Rusty Barber, who was USIP’s chief of party in Baghdad and did most of the heavy lifting, 


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Settlements threaten Zionism

Threats to Israeli democracy were front and center at Friday’s conversation “Settlements at 50 Years – An Obstacle to Peace and Democracy” at the Middle East Institute. Moderated by Haaretz journalist Amir Tibon and featuring Talia Sasson – president of the New Israel Fund (NIF) and former special legal advisor to then-prime minister of Israel Ariel Sharon – the talk highlighted the dangers of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s self-interested politicking, infringement upon the Palestinian right of self-determination, and the pernicious delegitimization of the Israeli left.

The dynamic playing out between far-right pro-settlement Israelis, the Israeli government, and the Trump administration is complex. After the initial euphoria in the wake of Trump’s election, the American president’s reluctance to endorse construction in the West Bank has tempered the elation of the Israeli right. Fearing a return to Obama-era restrictions and American intransigence, the right puts pressure on Netanyahu’s coalition. Netanyahu makes a show of forbidding the construction of further outposts—illegal under Israeli law—but concedes the right to continue construction around existing Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Finally, Netanyahu turns to Trump: look what the people want! My hands are tied.

The settlements are built.

“The whole thing is internal political theater,” Sasson said wryly. She argued that this kind of politicking poses a grave threat to Israeli democracy.

Not only does the construction of settlements push the limits of Israeli law – it compromises the very principles of national sovereignty upon which the Israeli state claims to be based. “To be a patriot of the State of Israel,” insisted Sasson, “you can’t put into that definition depriving the Palestinians of the right to have their own state.” The fundamental principle underlying the 1948 partition – a principle Sasson affirmed despite occupation and the current post-1967 boundaries – is that no party to the conflict claims all the land. Perhaps in the spirit of recognizing Palestinian nationality, Sasson called Israeli Arabs – Israeli citizens of Arab ethnicity and descent – “Palestinian citizens of Israel.”

In addition to ongoing controversies surrounding Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the principle of legal and social equality for Israeli Arabs lies on a fault line between the Israeli right and the left. The right, Sasson warned, is doing its best to convince the Israeli public that there is a necessary conflict between Israel’s status as a democracy and its status as a Jewish state. Equality for all Israeli citizens—Jewish and Arab—allegedly violates Jewish primacy. For this reason, contended Sasson, those leftists and activists who demand equal rights for Jews and Arabs are painted as enemies of the state.

“I think in Israel, we have a delegitimization of the left for many years,” she explained. While figures on the right such as Prime Minister Netanyahu discredit human rights organizations with claims that they are unpatriotic, opposition leaders such as Isaac Herzog claim that radical democrats are ruining the left. To compound the issue, the end of Obama’s tenure as president signals the end of an era of American temperance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nowadays, lamented Sasson, a minority of the Israeli citizenry holds her views publicly. Most identify with the right or with the center – but Sasson believes that “many feel that something is wrong.”

For this reason, Sasson’s New Israel Fund continues to oppose the construction of settlements in the West Bank alongside its more popular, less controversial projects such as defending women’s rights and the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. According to Sasson’s emphatic brand of Israeli patriotism, the solution may lie in a return to Zionism.

“I believe in the old way of Zionism, not the settlements,” she said. The old way, she clarified, is her interpretation of the 1948 Israeli Declaration of Independence. It is democracy and a home for all Jews.

“Settlements,” warned Sasson, “are the death of Zionism.”

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A bona fide boon to lawyers

That’s what the Supreme Court has decided you need: a bona fide (genuine, real, sincere, non-deceptive) relationship with an individual or entity in the US  to come here from six Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen). President Trump is claiming this vindicates his effort to block all immigration and refugees from these allegedly dangerous countries, from which no terrorist has arrived since 9/11.

Far from it. The merits of the bans he ordered will be considered in the fall. For now, all the Court has decided is that people without a bona fide relationship with the US are not entitled to the ban on the travel ban issued by lower courts.

The question then becomes: what is a bona fide relationship? The Court made clear that category includes familial relations as well as contractual ones, like documented admission to a US university. The only clearly excluded category would be relationships that are deceptive, for example one entered into for the sole purpose of getting into the US.

So the consequence of this decision, as the dissenting minority that wanted to back Trump more fully said, will be a flood of litigation to determine what is a bona fide relationship with a US individual (notable: not necessarily a citizen) or entity. Is an invitation to speak at a conference evidence of such a relationship? Do hotel reservations or airline tickets qualify? What about acceptance into a refugee resettlement program sponsored by the State Department? I’m fairly confident this is a slippery slope to admitting many people.

The problem is that the public image will lean heavily in Trump’s direction, not least because of his exaggerated claim to vindication. This will encourage immigration officials to take a draconian attitude towards enforcement. It will also offend Muslims worldwide, who don’t like the restrictions:

Opposition to restrictions on entry to US

In fact, the countries where majorities like the restrictions are mainly those where ethnic nationalism is rampant: Hungary, Poland, Russia, and Israel fit that category.

Al Qaeda and the Islamic State also relish Trump’s hostility to Muslims, which confirms their assertions about the US and the need to attack it. Trump’s crowing about this Supreme Court decision could easily boost extremist recruitment, both inside and outside the US. The restrictions will likely cause more terrorism than they prevent–it will take only one such act inside the US by someone from one of these countries to prove that point.

Trump however will try to use any terrorist attack in the opposite direction. He all too obviously sees such attacks as opportunities to make his political points. He has used each and every attack in Europe as an opportunity to generate antipathy toward Muslims in general. He’ll no doubt amplify that attitude if and when there is an attack in the US, thus generating more resentment and helping extremist recruitment.

It is true of course that he also has friends in the Muslim world: autocrats like Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, Turkey’s President Erdogan and Egypt’s President Sissi have nothing to fear from this president, who has ignored their brutal and indiscriminate crackdowns on liberal democrats as well as terrorists. Citizens, residents and travelers through those three countries have been involved in terrorist acts in Europe and the US since 9/11, but Trump wouldn’t want to offend his friends by blocking their citizens from the US.

We face another round on the immigration ban at the Supreme Court in the fall, with lots of litigation in the meanwhile. This Administration is a big boon for lawyers.

PS: If you don’t like that chart, try this one:

Pew world ratings of Trump and Obama



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Peace picks June 26-30

  1. Women Guiding Peace After War: Lessons from Rwanda | Monday, June 26 | 3 – 4:30 pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | Rwandan women played a key role in facilitating reconciliation and rehabilitating the country’s economy in the wake of the Rwandan genocide. Their contribution holds lessons for other countries in conflict such as South Sudan, and for aid donors, such as the United States. Panelists will include Ambassador Swanee Hunt, author of Rwandan Women Rising; Ambassador George MooseCarla Kopell, and Susan Stigant of the U.S. Institute of Peace; and Consolee Nishimwe, genocide survivor.
  2. Jerusalem: Is There a Solution? And Are Israelis and Palestinians Ready for One? | Monday, June 26 | 4 – 5 pm | Wilson Center | Register Here | The fate of Jerusalem is a complicated one involving the city’s dimensions as a municipality, as a political issue, and as a religious symbol all at once. Is there a solution to the problem of sovereignty over Jerusalem? Panelists Arthur Hughes, former Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. embassy in Israel; Ghaith al-Omairi, former advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team; and Danny Seideman, an Israeli attorney, discuss. The conversation will be moderated by Aaron David Miller, former advisor to Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State on Arab-Israeli negotiations.
  3. After the ISIS Flag Falls: The Future of Mosul and Iraq | Tuesday, June 27 | 1 – 2:30 pm | The Heritage Foundation | Register Here | After eight months of fighting, Iraqi troops are close to securing victory against ISIS’s last remaining forces in the city of Mosul. This recovery of the main ISIS stronghold in Iraq will open a new phase in the country’s struggle for stability, demanding the resolution of old domestic conflicts and anticipation of new ones arising from ISIS’s brutal three-year reign in Iraq’s northwest. A panel discussion with James PhillipsSarhang Hamasaeed, and Col. Michael Kershaw hosted by Dr. James Jay Carafano will be followed by comments from Stephen Hadley and Nancy Lindborg.
  4. The Syrian Conflict and Regional Security | Tuesday, June 27 | 3 – 5 pm | Turkish Heritage Organization | Register Here | Join panelists Dr. Michael Doran, General Mark Kimmitt, and Dr. Denise Natal for a discussion of the regional implications of the Syrian Civil War’s military, diplomatic, and humanitarian facets six years in. The panel will place special emphasis on recent developments such as the ongoing Raqqa Offensive, and on understanding the complex web of actors currently on the ground.
  5. Mexico: A Leading Nation Battles Drug Cartels, Crime, and Corruption | Wednesday, June 28 | 11:45 am – 1:45 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | The expansion of lawlessness in certain regions of Mexico threatens the country’s impressive advancements in manufacturing, education, and health care, and jeopardizes the country’s economic stability and vital tourism industry. The Hudson Institute will host a panel discussion on the state of Mexico’s struggle against drugs and crime featuring former Mexican diplomat Ambassador Jorge Guajardo, journalist Armando González, and the institute’s own Ambassador Jaime Daremblum and David Murray.
  6. The Power of the President to Shape U.S. Relations in the Middle East and North Africa | Thursday, June 29 | 10 – 11 am | Brookings Institution | Register Here | Despite President Donald Trump’s “America First” campaign rallying cry, recent months have seen the president soften his stances towards several MENA countries. After President Trump’s visit to the Middle East, lingering questions about his commitment to the Iran deal and his approach towards the Israeli-Palestinian peace process remain. Join panelists Adel Abdel GhafarJohn Hudak, and Shibley Telhami – and moderator Yeganeh Torbati of Reuters – for a discussion of President Trump’s likely moves over the next four years.
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