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Tag Archives | Israelis

The Futility of Talk: Why Negotiations with Iran Won’t Work…Yet

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Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief, presented a package of new incentives on behalf of the P5+1 to Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief negotiator. Source: Al Jazeera

A few days ago, a top UN official announced a new round of talks with Iran over access to restricted nuclear sites.

Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief, presented a package of new incentives on behalf of the P5+1 to Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief negotiator. Source: Al Jazeera

The talks are the latest in a diplomatic effort to engage Iran over its nuclear program, reflecting recent optimism that a negotiated solution is possible. Only a few weeks ago Catherine Ashton, the lead negotiator for the P5+1 talks in Baghdad, confidently expressed her desire to secure “the beginning of the end” of the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. Both parties left Baghdad empty handed, though faith in a diplomatic way forward remained, as both parties agreed to meet again in Moscow on June 18th.

While misguided, this latest bout of optimism over diplomatic engagement with Iran—nowhere to be found only a few months ago—is not entirely unwarranted. The latest round of comprehensive sanctions from the U.S. and Europe has had crippling effects. Crude oil exports—Tehran’s lifeline— were down as much as 1 million barrels a day in April. The IEA (International Energy Agency) expects that sanctions, once in full force, will curb Iran’s oil exports by 50 percent. A frenzy of panic, moreover, has thrown the Iranian currency into a free fall. In just six weeks, the Iranian rial lost half its value.

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What Syria is Teaching the West

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers remarks during the Second Conference of the Group of Friends of the Syrian People in Istanbul, Turkey

It should come as little surprise to anyone that the fragile cease-fire in Syria has failed and is evidence that - contrary to what many pundits contend - the tide continues to be on Mr. Assad’s side, given the time that has passed, the fractured nature of the opposition, and the bungled manner in which the West has addressed the subject.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers remarks during the Second Conference of the Group of Friends of the Syrian People in Istanbul, Turkey

As Syria demonstrates, with each passing month the Arab Awakening evolves in new and unexpected ways. The question is whether the West is evolving along with the Awakening, or will remain stuck in a unidimensional view of MENA. As pressure mounts on foreign powers to consider intervening militarily in Syria, analogies are naturally being drawn between what NATO accomplished in Libya and whether something comparable may be possible in Syria. Military intervention would perhaps make the West feel better — knowing that it attempted to do something concrete to end the bloodshed — but it is unlikely to be successful for several reasons. An air and sea campaign against Syria would likely prove more difficult than in Libya.

The Syrian military — which numbers more than 500,000 men (including reservists) — is more formidable than Gadhafi’s forces and would prove more challenging to impact by air. Syria possesses more than 10,000 armored fighting vehicles, 4,000 surface-to-air missile launchers, and a formidable array of anti-aircraft systems. Moreover, unlike in Libya, the Free Syria Army (FSA) has not established territorial control over any discernible part of the country, which makes it very difficult to imagine defending any positions. Any military campaign would likely result in numerous instances of mistaken identity and civilian casualties, so what would a military campaign be supporting at this time?

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An Unlikely Peace: Iran’s Quest for Nuclear Weapons is Likely to Lead to War

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Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressing the Security Council.  Rick Bajornas/UN

“It is not in our hands to prevent the murder of workers…and families…but it is in our hands to fix a high price for our blood, so high that the Arab community and the Arab military forces will not be willing to pay it.” – Moshe Dayan, Warrior: the autobiography of Ariel Sharon

Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressing the Security Council. Rick Bajornas/UN

As Israel has faced the threat of Arab armies and Islamic terrorism throughout its history, it has struggled to maintain a strong deterrence in the Middle East, one that will prevent other countries in the region from continuing to attack and to kill Israeli citizens. One of today’s most important issues in foreign affairs is Iran’s quest to obtain nuclear weapons and how their journey towards nuclear dominance in the Middle East might bring America and Israel into the conflict.

In Israel this issue is arguably more pertinent than anywhere else. The fear of a second Holocaust at the hands of an unstable regime in Iran is feared by most every citizen in Israel and their government is doing everything in its power to prevent Iran from achieving that goal. From a country who has called Israel “a true cancer tumor on the region that should be cut off,” Israelis have every right to be afraid of Iran achieving their goal of nuclear weapons and Israel has every right to continue to defend against that threat.

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Profiting from Patience: Why Israel Should Not Act Unilaterally Against Iran

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Israeli military units conducting exercises. Photo: Ori Shifrin

“As Prime Minister, I will never gamble with the security of the State of Israel.” – Benjamin Netanyahu, in a speech to AIPAC, March 5, 2012

Israeli military units conducting exercises. Photo: Ori Shifrin

Even before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the stage at the 2012 AIPAC conference, the crowd of more than 13,000 participants knew what the topic of his speech would be: Iran. Speaking with passion unmatched by any of the other notable speakers, including US President Barack Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres, PM Netanyahu used biblical quotes, touching personal stories, and unbridled rhetoric to ensure that those in attendance understood that Israel would no longer stand by as Iran developed a nuclear weapons program.

His speech made it clear that Israel was losing patience with the diplomatic approach that has been favored by President Obama, and that Israel was seriously considering unilateral military action. This threat, credible or not, would not create the stability that PM Netanyahu seeks for his country. On the contrary, unilateral military action by Israel could possibly be the worst course of action available. Iran’s search for nuclear weapons has created a regional and global political environment that is substantially more beneficial to Israel than ever before. Such an environment would no longer exist should Israel pursue pre-emptive military action.

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Why Iran will Compromise this Time

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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel at the White House, July 6, 2010. Pete Souza/White House

As we inch closer to the crucial nuclear talks between Iran and the world powers, the so-called P5+1, the primordial question is whether this time will be different: Is Tehran willing to make necessary compromises – from greater nuclear transparency to more stringent restrictions on its enrichment activities - to reverse the economic siege that is bringing the country close to the edge? Is she going to use the talks as a delaying tactic or will she finally strike a mutually-acceptable deal with the West?

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel at the White House, July 6, 2010. Pete Souza/White House

From the perspective of the Iranian leadership, with sanctions beginning to squeeze the Iranian economy - atop intensifying threats of military invasion and a growing Western naval presence in the Persian Gulf - the nuclear impasse is worryingly morphing into a question of regime survival. Sure, the regime has significant resources – both financial and military – as its disposal to head-off growing international isolation, and pursue its nuclear program, but growing external pressure can affect the very foundation of Iran’s trillion-dollar industrializing economy. Moreover, growing economic uncertainty – compounding decades-long structural economic challenges - could also impact the country’s very social cohesion, amidst lingering discontent among certain quarters of the population.

This is precisely why this time could be different, and there are no shortages of diplomatic overtures on the part of Iran, signaling Tehran’s interest in resolving the crisis. If there is one thing that is consistent with the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is her undying instinct for self-preservation. Moreover, the Iranian regime is anything but monolithic: even within the upper echelons of the politico-military leadership, pragmatic forces have always sought to prevent any crisis or conflict, which would endanger the country’s territorial integrity. After all, the 1979 Iranian Revolution was nationalistic: its founding principles emphasized Iran’s territorial integrity and independence.

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Coming Up: A Tehran Communiqué?

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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announcing new economic sanctions targeting Iran as Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner listens on, at the State Department in Washington

Arguably, growing tensions over Iran’s nuclear impasse represent today’s greatest international security challenge.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announcing new economic sanctions targeting Iran as Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner listens on, at the State Department in Washington

Current Western sanctions against Iran are biting hard, but they are also hurting both the Iranian population and global consumers. With rising concerns over a possible “supply shock” — as Iran struggles to sell its oil and alternative producers such as Saudi Arabia and Libya scramble over dwindling spare capacity — energy prices are inching closer to their staggering 2008 levels. While commodity markets are already feeling the shockwaves, global consumers are struggling to keep pace with rising energy costs.

Economists are seriously concerned that growing tensions in the Persian Gulf are undermining global recovery. In the event of a direct conflict, the world economy could slip into the abyss of a double-dip recession. The last thing the world needs is a major conflict at the heart of a democratizing region so vital to global economic stability. A U.S. or Israeli war with Iran would not only lead to a humanitarian tragedy but would put the entire Middle East on the precipice of conflagration — possibly dragging other great powers such as China and Russia into the picture.

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Netanyahu’s and Obama’s Unsavory Choices on Iran

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President Barack Obama with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Pete Souza/White House

Whether Iran’s goal is ultimately to produce a nuclear weapon is unknown, but as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said last weekend during his meetings in Washington, if it looks, walks and talks like a duck, it is usually a duck. He also asked a simple question – Would Iran be producing its missile program simply to place medical isotopes on top of their missiles?

President Barack Obama with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Pete Souza/White House

At least one world leader is asking the right questions and looking this issue squarely in the face. The others, including President Obama, seem to believe that if the West is patient enough, Iran will buckle under the weight of sanctions, and the breakthrough (if that is what it really is) recently achieved with North Korea will prove to be achievable with Iran.

Well, in the event that time was not limited and the potential consequences of an Iranian bomb were not so frightening, he might have an argument – but we do not believe he does. The Obama administration faces limited options in addressing its dilemma with Iran. While each choice carries its own risks and rewards, the fact that this is an election year in the United States, Israel and Iran taints any option. In short, what was an unsavory range of alternatives is now a question of which is the best looking horse in the glue factory.

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Syria: A Way Out

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Paris for the Friends of Syria Meeting with other Western delegates to hammer out an agreement. F. de La Mure/MAE

There are two tales about the crisis in Syria.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Paris for the Friends of Syria Meeting with other Western delegates to hammer out an agreement. F. de La Mure/MAE

In one, the vast majority of Syrians have risen up against the brutality of a criminal dictatorship. The government of Bashar al Assad is on the ropes, isolated regionally and internationally, and only holding on because Russia and China vetoed United Nations intervention. Secretary to State Hillary Clinton describes Assad as “a war criminal,” and President Barak Obama called him a “dead man walking.” In the other, a sinister alliance of feudal Arab monarchies, the U.S. and its European allies, and al-Qaeda mujahedeen are cynically using the issue of democracy to overthrow a government most Syrians support, turn secular Syria into an Islamic stronghold, and transform Damascus into a loyal ally of Washington and Saudi Arabia against Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Like most stories, there is truth and fiction in both versions, but separating myth from reality is desperately important, because Syria sits at the strategic heart of the Middle East. Getting it wrong could topple dominoes from Cairo to Ankara, from Beirut to Teheran. There is no question but that last March’s demonstrations were a spontaneous reaction to the Syrian government’s arrest and torture of some school children in Deraa. What is more, that the corruption of the Assad family—they dominate the army, the security forces, and much of the telecommunications, banking and construction industry, coupled with the suffocating and brutal security forces, underlies the anger that fuels the uprising.

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Saudi Arabia and Qatar Ratchet Up Pressure on Assad

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attending the Friends of Syria group in Paris with other foreign ministers to plot a path forward

Running counter to the wishes of the United States and other western nations, Saudi Arabia and Qatar recently announced that they are taking steps to arm the Free Syria Army (FSA).

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attending the Friends of Syria group in Paris with other foreign ministers to plot a path forward

Despite the significance of this step, it is unlikely to shift the civil war in favor of the rebels. The FSA, armed with light weapons, suffered a number of strategic setbacks. Their tactical retreat from the Baba Amr neighborhood in Homs paints a picture of a rebel group that lacks the operational capacity to challenge the Assad regime directly. Even with more equipment and firepower supplied by the international community, without a no fly-zone, similar to Libya, the FSA is likely to face more strategic losses.

“The Free Syria Army don’t (sic) have heavy weaponry, and without them, I’m not sure they can survive,” said the FSA’s Mulham Jundi. Still, despite the reservations that the Obama administration has for arming the rebels, the United States is keeping its options open. While meeting with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt in the Oval Office last month, Obama reiterated the position of his administration: the international community must continue to send Assad the message that he must step down from power, and the United States, with allied support, must use every available tool to “prevent the slaughter of innocents” in Syria.

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Iran, Israel and the U.S.: The Slide To War

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President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, in the Oval Office. Pete Souza/White House

“The challenge is the potential arming of Iran with nuclear weapons capabilities. That is a great danger to all of us.” – Benjamin Netanyahu

President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, in the Oval Office. Pete Souza/White House

Wars are fought because some people decide it is in their interests to fight them. World War I was not started over the Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination, nor was it triggered by the alliance system. An “incident” may set the stage for war, but no one keeps shooting unless they think it’s a good idea. The Great War started because the countries involved decided they would profit by it, delusional as that conclusion was. It is useful to keep this idea in mind when trying to figure out if there will be a war with Iran. In short, what are the interests of the protagonists, and are they important enough for those nations to take the fateful step into the chaos of battle?

First off, because oil and gas are involved, a war would have global ramifications. Iran supplies China with about 15 percent of its oil, and India with 10 percent. It is a major supplier to Europe, Turkey, Japan and South Korea, and it has the third largest oil reserves and the second largest natural gas reserves in the world. Some 17 million barrels per day pass through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, a significant part of the globe’s energy supply. In short, the actors in this drama are widespread and their interests as diverse as their nationalities.

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Iranian Attack on the U.S. Unlikely

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CBS' "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer interviews Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, center, and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey

US intelligence officials have recently warned that Iran may attempt to conduct attacks on the US mainland in retaliation for what is presumed to be ongoing US and Israeli covert efforts to thwart Iranian nuclear ambitions.

CBS’ “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer interviews Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, center, and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey

Computer viruses have infected Iran’s nuclear laboratories, aerial drones have violated its airspace, and several of its nuclear scientists have been assassinated. Given the evidence that international economic sanctions against Tehran are beginning to have a significant impact on the Iranian economy, and given Iran’s increasing isolation, some analysts believe that Iran may think it has little to lose by attacking the US homeland.

We believe that an Iranian attack on the US is unlikely, but the Iranian government may believe such an attack is in its best interest, if: It conducted an attack in such a way as to make full-scale retaliation unlikely. A war between Iran and the US would ultimately prove a Pyrrhic victory. Facing growing discontent, it became desperate and felt it must take action in order preserve itself.

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Cyber War: Hype or Reality?

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Leon E. Panetta appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee during confirmation hearings on June 9, 2011

During his confirmation hearings this past June, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned the Senate, “The next Pearl Harbor we confront could very well be a cyber attack that cripples our grid, our security systems, our financial systems, our governmental systems.”

Leon E. Panetta appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee during confirmation hearings on June 9, 2011

It was powerful imagery: a mighty fleet reduced to smoking ruin, an expansionist Asian power at the nation’s doorstep. But is “cyber war” really a threat? Can cyber war actually “cripple” the U.S., and who might these computer terrorists be? Or is the language just sturm und drang spun up by a coalition of major arms manufacturers, the Pentagon, and Internet security firms, allied with China bashers aimed at launching a new Cold War in Asia?

The language is sobering. Former White House Security Aide Richard Clarke, author of Cyberwar, conjures up an apocalyptic future of paralyzed U.S. cities, subways crashing, planes “literally falling out of the sky,” and thousands dead. Retired Admiral and Bush administration National Intelligence Director, Mike McConnell grimly warns “The United States is fighting a cyber war today and we are losing.”

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Women’s Rights in Israel, Is Iran Closer than we Think?

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Rabbi Yoel Schwartz greets Religious Jewish soldiers attend a swearing in ceremony as they enter the orthodox Jewish IDF “Nahal Haredi” unit. Source: Flash90

Rabbi Yoel Schwartz greets Religious Jewish soldiers attend a swearing in ceremony as they enter the orthodox Jewish IDF “Nahal Haredi” unit. Source: Flash90

It would probably not be an exaggeration to say that on the international news stage Israel is known predominantly for the Palestinian conflict. The level of violence rarely drops enough for global reports to take interest in other issues in Israeli society. Considering the duration and the complexity of the struggle, the preference ensues almost naturally.

The subject of human rights reveals a similar skewing: Palestinians fight for their cause, engage public opinion, and generally bring attention to their plight. When the words “Israel” and “human rights” appear in the same sentence, chances are very high that the unresolved disputes about occupied territories and blockades will dictate the headlines.  All this is usually true for socio-political currents within Israel itself. Usually – but not always.

From time to time the defining national conflict recedes into the background, and others seize the front stage. The most recent one painfully underscored a long-standing antagonism between two communities in Israeli society: the secular and the ultra-orthodox.

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The Internal Debate over Israel’s Identity

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Shimon Peres, the president of Israel.  Peres urged Israelis to protest against religious extremism in Beit Shemesh.  Source: GPO

Protests between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis centered in the town of Beit Shemesh, Israel have shed light on a trend line.

Shimon Peres, the president of Israel. Peres urged Israelis to protest against religious extremism in Beit Shemesh. Source: GPO

According to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, and reported by The Jerusalem Post, the population of Israel, including the occupied territories is 7,836,000 million, of which, 5,901,000 are Jews. Protests earlier in the week ended with one police officer being wounded after several hundred ultra-Orthodox men objected when the police removed a sign that ordered women in Beit Shemesh to walk on the opposite side of the street from men. While a majority of Israeli Jews would define themselves as secular Jews, within Israel 10% of the population is ultra-Orthodox. Importantly, ultra-Orthodox Jews have a high birth rate, which translates into a clash of ideals between secularists and Orthodox Jews, like that unfolding in Beit Shemesh.

The protests between these two passionate groups began after reports by Israeli media of an eight year-old girl, Naama Margolese, who while walking home from school was harassed by Orthodox men in the town of Beit Shemesh. Although the girl and her family consider themselves Orthodox Jews, this fact has not appeased the Orthodox men of Beit Shemesh who are demanding that in all facets of life, Beit Shemesh must be segregated. This translates into men and women being separated along gender lines on public transportation and on sidewalks. This interpretation of religious law would also apply to attire that women wear in public. Ultra-Orthodox men in Beit Shemesh often complain that the women and girls of Beit Shemesh dress like prostitutes and need to practice “modesty” in public.

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Iran, the Revolution and the Language of War

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Crowds gathered in Tehran shortly after the revolution

Crowds gathered in Tehran shortly after the revolution

A few days ago, I revisited a lecture given by Fred Halliday, FBA (Fellow of the British Academy), an intellectual giant among scholars of Middle East and Cold War history, at the London School of Economics in 2009. His topic was “The Islamic Republic of Iran After 30 Years.” For nearly a quarter century, Halliday was professor of International Relations at the LSE and recognized worldwide as a leading expert in the study of Islam, the Middle East and great power relations in the region.

He died just over a year ago, but for more than three decades before that he was also in great demand in media outlets, including the BBC World Service at Bush House, my professional base next door to the LSE. He often came to take part in World Service programs and I came to regard Fred as a friend. Watching him interpret the Iranian Revolution thirty years after was an enlightening experience once again. An important lesson I have learned in my life is to engage the best when in doubt. For me, going back to Fred Halliday was prompted by a recent experience during an exchange about an article I had written on Iran. My exchange was with an editor. Young, bright and overbearing on this occasion, he thought I was giving Iran a mild treatment, otherwise widely denounced these days as a “dictatorship” representing dark ages and which threatens the world.

Needless to say, I am one of those who do not subscribe to this version of history, past or present. The world is much more complex. It is tempting and easy to grab a news agency copy and throw it at someone to prove our own view of events, based on a narrow interpretation of recent knowledge and conventional wisdom of the present time that is temporary by its nature. It is worse when the agency report thrown at the person contains claims made on a website by one side about casualties at the hands of the other, with no way of checking independently. Anyway, I moved on without rancor on my part. To recognize, indeed to reflect with caveats, the significance of a propaganda war is one thing. It is quite different to be blown away by a current political storm when the objective is to attempt a serious historical analysis.

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