Iran’s aggrieved entitlement

Sousan Abadian, a scholar with advanced degrees from Harvard, contributed this post. She has served as a Fellow at MIT’s Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values as well as the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Her academic research on healing collective trauma has been described as “pioneering” and “highly original” by Nobel laureate in economics Amartya Sen. She now guides people and organizations to step free of restrictive narratives and go beyond known thresholds in order to create transformation. She has been awarded a Franklin Fellowship at the US Department of State.

I’m a student of post-conflict restoration, of how communities not only survive trauma but also learn to thrive by adapting and gaining resilience. I was born in Iran but naturalized in the US. Forays into Vietnam and Laos have given me perspective on my Iranian origins.

How did the Laotians and Vietnamese react when they found out I was American? Gracious and unimpressed. The war has been over now for over thirty years. The Vietnamese have succeeded in unifying their country and winning their independence. Laos welcomed President Obama just this month.

Both Vietnam and Laos are not only at peace but profoundly peaceful. As a researcher concerned with collective trauma, I wondered how that had been achieved. For example, there is a surprising absence of road rage given the horrendous crowds and unbelievable traffic in Hanoi. I witnessed the aftermath of an accident involving two motorcycles. A large crowd had gathered around the two riders, who were calmly discussing the incident. I had never seen anything like it.

At the crack of dawn in Hanoi, a large group of elderly do Tai Chi by Hoàn Kiếm Lake and play badminton, laughing and puffing with exertion. Just outside Luang Prabang in Laos, the ancient city of a thousand temples, children stand by the side of the road with buckets of water, splashing passersby and laughing hysterically. Life is about equilibrium and joy.

I could not help but contrast my experience of Iran with Laos and Vietnam. Iranian children, and adults for that matter, are full of mirth and fun. But there is also an intangible heaviness, as though joy must be kept under wraps — like its women, hidden away under black — and squashed under the weight of self-denial, austerity, and even perpetual mourning. Many Vietnamese and Laotians I encountered were by contrast engaged in play, contemplation, or busy moving ahead in life. They appear to ruminate little and refrain from stirring up muck from the past.

Why is it that after all these years, the Iranian government, or at least the Islamist hardliners, continue to express resentment and foment rage at America, their ‘Great Satan,’ while the Laotians and Vietnamese had seemingly let go of their bitter grievances, moving graciously on towards the future? Iran has arguably experienced a fraction of what Laotians experienced (and continue to experience) at the hands of the American government. Laos experienced the most bombings per capita in history. From 1964 to 1973, the US dropped the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years. American unexploded ordnance continues to maim and kill innocent Laotian children and adults to this day in an estimated one-third of the country.

What allows Vietnam and Laos to move forward with the US despite legitimate grievances? What prevents Iran from doing so? Read more

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No one should miss it!

The new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was inaugurated Saturday on the Mall in the shadow of the monument to George Washington, who was a slave-owner. Here is the full video of the inauguration ceremony:

My family came to America well after slavery had been abolished: early 1890s. I suppose my parents could have claimed it was all over before we got here, so it has nothing to do with us. But that is not what they did or what the new museum allows anyone to do. It’s tagline, #APeoplesJourney #ANationsStory, betrays the intent: no matter who you are, no matter when your ancestors arrived on these shores, you have a relationship not only to slavery but also to the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement. These were nation-shaping events, as much as the Revolution, industrialization, the World Wars, or Vietnam.

The museum is a 3D multi-media display of a thousand vignettes, illustrated with objects, music, and graphics that confound over-simplification and stereotyping. Who remembers that slavery was once neither linked to race nor a life-time status? Who knew of the 1741 rebellion of blacks and whites in New York City? Who realizes that both George Washington and his British adversaries viewed blacks as vital to their war plans? It wasn’t only Crispus Attucks, the first man to die in the revolt. Seven hundred spent the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge. Who thinks, when we look at the difference in incomes between blacks and whites today, about the 250 years in which the latter did not pay the former for their labor, which generated a significant portion of the nation’s wealth?

America is founded on a contradiction: all people are created equal is the founding creed, but many (not only blacks but women and the unpropertied) were not treated that way. To his credit, Chief Justice Roberts focused his remarks at the inauguration on three landmark Supreme Court decisions: Dred Scott v Sandford (1857), Plessy v Ferguson (1896), Brown v Board of Education (1954). The first held that blacks could not be citizens, the second upheld “separate but equal” racial segregation. Only in the third did the Court rule in a way that today we recognize as just by declaring segregated education unconstitutional. Racial “isolation” of schools nevertheless remains a worsening problem.

President Bush in his remarks focused on just this capacity for change, for correcting mistakes. This in no way excuses them or lessens the hurt they cause, but it means there is hope, epitomized in the extraordinary abolitionists, both black and white, who sought an end to slavery for decades before the Civil War brought its demise, as well as the civil rights activists who in more recent times sought to make equality real. Their stories are told vividly and well in the museum’s lower depths.

President Obama (at about 1:21 in the video) was in an introspective mood, as he seems often to be in these months before ending his mandate. Particularly effective was his effort to reframe the narrative associated with a single museum artifact, a simple stone with a brass plaque attached, to focus on the thousands of people who were bought and sold on this slave block rather than the forgotten politicians who once spoke from it (and are commemorated on the plaque). He, too, focused on recognizing mistakes and remaking America based on its ideals. He went so far as to praise the American athletes who raised clenched fists in protest at the 1968 Olympics.

No less than the Presidents and Chief Justice, others spoke, sang, and pranced in delight at the opening of a museum that celebrates both suffering and redemption: John Lewis, Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle, and the Howard University marching band were particularly notable. So too is the introductory film made by Ava Duvernay and her friends. Focused on a single date (August 28) in various years, it will surprise and delight even the most hardened heart.

Caveat emptor: my wife is the chief curator of the museum, responsible in particular for the visual arts gallery. It offers a haven of calm and incontrovertible beauty after the wrenching experience of walking up the ramps that take hushed visitors from the depths of slavery through emancipation, to the busy galleries devoted to extraordinary black achievement against all odds in sports, theater and film, music and other spheres.

Most of the visitors in the day or so since the inauguration have been black. They are enjoying a museum that stunningly tells their own, inherently heroic story. No harm in that. But a great deal more good will come when whites recognize that this story is also theirs. No one should miss it!

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Peace picks September 26-30

  1. The Role of Law in the Fight Against International Terrorism |Monday, September 26 | 8:30am – 4:30pm | George Washington Law | Click HERE to register
    Join GW Law’s International and Comparative Law Program, American Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (AFHU), Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Faculty of Law (HU Law), and Minerva Center for Human Rights (HU Minerva) as they examine issues arising from the changing nature of terrorist acts. Alberto Mora, former General Counsel of the US Navy and the recipient of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, will present the opening address. The luncheon address will be presented by Michael Chertoff, former US Secretary of Homeland Security.
  2. After Mosul: Rethinking Iraq | Monday, September 26 | 11:00am – 12:30pm | Woodrow Wilson Center | Click HERE to Register
    ISIS has occupied Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, since the early days of June 2014. The victory in Mosul was both symbolically and materially very significant for ISIS. The group not only obtained large caches of military equipment from a defeated Iraqi army, but occupying such a large city made it a visible contender for power in the region. Now the Iraqi army, with the help of the United States and others including the Kurdish peshmerga, is getting ready to recapture the city. This panel will explore the impact of ISIS’s occupation of the city on its inhabitants, what the recapture of the city will mean for Iraq, and the city’s future relations with the rest of Iraq. Featuring Amatzia Baram, Professor emeritus for Middle East history and director of the Center for Iraq Studies, University of Haifa, and former public policy scholar, Wilson Center, Abbas Kadhim, Senior Foreign Policy Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, SAIS-Johns Hopkins University, and President, Institute of Shia Studies, and Wladimir van Wilgenburg, Middle East Analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, Judith Yaphe, Adjunct professor, Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University.
  3. When Should the U.S. Use Force Abroad? | Monday, September 26 | 11:45am – 2:00pm | American Foreign Policy Council | Click HERE to Register

    Debate Panel I
    : What lessons should we learn from America’s use of force in Iraq and how should those lessons inform future decisions on future military missions abroad? Speakers: Phil Giraldi, PhD., former CIA Case Officer and Army Intelligence Officer, and current Executive Director of the Council for the National Interest, Michael Doran, PhD. previously senior director in the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, and currently a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute. Debate Panel II:  This panel will review the major uses of force since Viet Nam. Panelists will discuss a) when military force is justified and the arguments against its use ; b)  multilateralism; c) the views of the American public, and d) the War Powers Resolution and the role of Congress in authorizing the use of military force. Speakers: Jeffrey Bergner, PhD. former Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs (2005-2008) and former staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Sen. Lugar R-IN), Gerry Warburg, former House and Senate Democratic leadership aide on defense, intelligence and foreign policy, and current professor at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia.
  4. A Vision for the Future of Syria | Tuesday, September 27 | 11:15am – 12:30pm | Atlantic Council | Click HERE to Register
    Prime Minister Riad al-Hijab and the Syrian High Negotiations Commission (HNC), an umbrella organization for the Syrian opposition, released its vision for the future of Syria in London on September 7, 2016. This framework detailed three phases consistent with the 2012 Geneva Communiqué: negotiations initiated with a nationwide ceasefire and release of prisoners, a transitional period for rebuilding institutions, and a third phase welcomed by free elections for a new president.
    Weeks after this announcement, Syria is experiencing an incomplete, fragile, and faltering reduction of violence facilitated by Washington and Moscow. Nonetheless, a path toward negotiations and other key components of the HNC vision remain elusive, and the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains in question.
    Please join us on September 27 for a discussion with Prime Minister Riad al-Hijab to discuss these and other issues. Dr. Hijab will detail the HNC framework for transition in Syria, after which Hariri Center Director Ambassador will moderate a discussion on the vision’s receptivity and the challenges to its implementation.
  5. Civil Society in Eastern Europe and Eurasia: Thriving or Just Surviving? | Tuesday, September 27 | 9:30am -11:00am | Woodrow Wilson Center | Click Here to Register
    Is the trend to restrict civil society, visible in Russia and neighboring countries, getting worse?  In some of the countries of the former communist world, it has become more difficult for civil society to operate freely, while in others, civil society plays a strong role promoting reform and responding to regional challenges. These are just some of the divergent trends identified in USAID’s 2015 Civil Society Organization Sustainability Index(CSOSI), which assesses the health of the civil society sector against key indicators in 24 countries in Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia.
    Practitioners and scholars will discuss these trends, what it means for civil society leaders and activists in these countries, and what can be done to put civil society in Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia on a more secure and sustainable path.
  6. 7th Annual Turkey Conference | Friday, September 30 | 9:00am – 4:00pm | Middle East Institute | Click HERE to RegisterThe Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute is pleased to present the 7th Annual Conference on Turkey on Friday, September 30, 2016. The conference will assemble three expert panels to discuss the impact of the recent coup attempt on Turkey’s internal political-military dynamics as well as the country’s relations with its Western allies and regional partners. Register now to attend three expert panel discussions on these and other issues facing Ankara. Registration is free and open to the public. Additional panelists and moderators to be announced.


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The epitome of resolve

AP has published the Syria cease-fire deal that the US government refused to make public. It is instructive, even though the cessation of hostilities is in tatters as Russian and Syrian government forces have launched major attacks focused on Aleppo.

The deal was more or less as anticipated and described in the press: it entailed an effort to stabilize at least parts of Syria by ending attacks on non-extremist forces, thus permitting them to receive humanitarian assistance. Had this happened as agreed for a week, the US and Russia would have jointly targeted extremist forces (ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra and others) while the Syrian air force would have stood down from attacks in designated areas.

Special provisions would have allowed relief to arrive from Turkey to Aleppo in sealed trucks. Checkpoints on the Castello Road north of Aleppo were to be monitored initially by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and later by the UN. The area near the road was to be demilitarized, with both government and opposition forces pulling back. Syrians were supposed to be allowed to leave Aleppo, including fighters with weapons. At least one other route was to be opened into Aleppo.

The joint Russian/American military action against extremists depended on the delineation of areas controlled by Nusra and opposition groups, starting right away but more “comprehensively” once the joint implementation center responsible for coordinating attacks on extremists was established. The Russians have been claiming that the Americans failed to fulfill their commitment to delineation, which also requires separation of more moderate forces from the extremists.

Why hasn’t it worked?

Some blame the failure on a lack of monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. To be sure, this is a complicated agreement with many moving parts that might have been marginally more successful had there been some sort of third-party monitoring.

But fundamentally it hasn’t worked because the parties haven’t really wanted it to or don’t have the leverage required. The Syrian government has the military advantage around Aleppo and wants to finish off the opposition that has controlled parts of the city for years. The Russians, having doubled down on their support for Bashar al Assad, are in no position to undermine their surrogate. The Americans have not provided sufficient support to the opposition to wean it from the extremists, who provide a good deal of the tooth in fighting against the regime.

Secretary of State Kerry is still trying to revive the cessation of hostilities. Foreign Policy has classified this as the textbook definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. But Kerry isn’t nuts. His problem is President Obama, who thinks there is nothing he can do that will improve the situation.

My Republican colleagues see this as a failure of resolve. I don’t. All American presidents since the fall of the Berlin Wall have resisted interventions. All eventually undertook one or more, against their better judgment at the outset. What distinguishes Obama is that he is more resolved, not less. But he is resolved to avoid the slippery slope to “owning” Syria, whereas his critiques wish he would start down it. This is the epitome of resolve, not its failure. Remember: this is a man with two teenage daughters who has spent almost eight years in the White House without a whiff of scandal.

I believe there are still things the President can consider doing about Syria: expanded sanctions, stand-off attacks on helicopters that drop barrel bombs or Syrian aircraft that violate the cessation of hostilities, an ultimatum to get Hizbollah and other Iranian surrogates out of Syria, non-declared attacks on Syrian government command and control. Without these alternatives, Secretary Kerry will not be able to deliver the negotiated political solution that is his avowed goal.

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Reconciliation Syrian style

At a roundtable discussion in Washington DC earlier this week, knowledgeable people discussed the local reconciliation and evacuation strategies applied to besieged areas of Syria, including the recent evacuation of the Damascene suburb of Darayya.

On August 28, the Syrian government took full control over Darayya following negotiations with the Darayya Reconciliation Committee and evacuated its civilian population to makeshift centers in Damascus and its fighters to Idlib in northern Syria. This manner of ‘reconciliation’ with Damascus has occurred in a number of cities and towns in Syria. The government uses this approach to establish its authority in opposition held areas.

The process is essentially a negotiation between the Syrian government and an appointed body within the besieged area called the reconciliation committee and composed of local elites. Often local Sharia courts or local councils are repurposed to serve as reconciliation committees. The committee negotiates with the government on behalf of the area that it represents. So long as the reconciliation process is occurring, the Syrian government will provide supplies and minimal services to civilians in the besieged area.

By sending convoys of food and other supplies to the besieged areas, the Syrian government effectively prevents local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from providing substantial humanitarian aid to these areas. If local NGOs, which are usually backed by international NGOs, do provide aid and services, Damascus considers it a violation of the reconciliation process and will cease negotiations and recommence airstrikes. Thus, local NGOs are unable to carry out their missions and often lose the support of the international NGOs as a result.

Once an agreement is reached, the government will transfer all the “unreconciliables” in the area out to either Idlib or Damascus.  These unreconciliables usually consist of fighters, humanitarian workers and political activists, though in the case of Darayya the entire population was transferred. This practice of population transfer allows opposition fighters who were fighting losing battles to move north where they can join the fight for Aleppo, one of the most hotly contested areas in Syria.

While it appears that Damascus has the upper hand in these negotiations, the besieged communities hold considerable leverage. The Syrian army has a manpower problem. An effective siege requires a significant number of troops. The longer the besieged area can hold out, the weaker the army will get. Additionally, areas are often targeted because they hold a strategic resource or infrastructure that the government desires. The reconciliation council can leverage that resource to get a better deal out of the negotiations.

An analyst recommended that local NGOs should consider embedding in existing bodies (such as a religious charity or a local business) in order to operate in besieged areas. He also recommended that when considering how to assist besieged areas, we shouldn’t only look at whether the people in these areas are having their day-to-day needs met, but also whether they can sustainably provide for themselves once the government convoys stop coming.

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Hidden heroes

Middle East Institute summer interns put this together:

Have faith! There is middle ground.

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