Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The New Yorker

Iran: Diplomacy Infinitum

The headline across the top half of Iran’s conservative newspaper 
Vatan Emrooz summed up a year of arduous diplomacy: “Nothing!” Iran and the world’s six major powers conceded on Monday that they had failed to meet a second deadline on terms to insure that Tehran’s advanced nuclear capacity cannot produce a bomb. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced in Vienna that all parties—Iran, along with the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia—had agreed, at the last minute, to an extension. The new goal is to reach a political agreement no later than March, with technical details to be worked out no later than June 30th.

Iran’s hard-line media was gleeful. The newspaper Javan proclaimed that diplomacy will be on “artificial respiration” for the next seven months. In Washington, opponents of a deal responded in a similar vein, calling for new economic measures against the Islamic Republic. “We believe this latest extension of talks should be coupled with increased sanctions,” the Republican senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte declared in a joint statement. They also called for the Obama Administration to be required to win formal congressional approval for any eventual deal: “When it comes to the Iranian nuclear ambitions, we strongly believe the most prudent policy would be to verify, verify, verify . . . never trust.”

Holding tough on Iran is one of the few issues that has bipartisan support in Congress. On Monday, Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the failure to get a deal “disappointing and worrying,” and vowed to broker a bipartisan effort to make sure that Tehran “comprehends that we will not ever permit it to become a threshold nuclear state.” Senate approval can only become more difficult after the Republicans take control, in January.
Parties to the talks were more upbeat. After thirty-five years of tension—dating back to the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover—the diplomatic tone between Tehran and Washington has become almost civil, and occasionally even friendly. At a press conference in Vienna, Kerry said, “We have made real and substantial progress on some of the most vexing challenges, and we now see the path toward potentially resolving some issues that have been intractable.” He said that “new ideas” had surfaced over the weekend, though he didn’t give any details. “Given how far we’ve come over the past year—and particularly in the last few days—this is certainly not the time to get up and walk away.”
Kerry praised his Iranian interlocutor, Mohammad Javad Zarif. “The Iranian Foreign Minister has worked hard, and he has worked diligently. He has approached these negotiations in good faith and with seriousness of purpose, and that’s what it takes to try to resolve the kind of difficult issues here.”
Zarif, at his own press conference, pledged that negotiations would resume in December. “After our Americans friends enjoy Thanksgiving holiday, we will be working hard,” he said. “Secretary Kerry and I committed ourselves to working hard.”
In Tehran, President Hassan Rouhani appeared almost conciliatory. Many of the differences between the parties “have been eliminated,” he said on national television. “We have had some agreements behind the scene, but, putting those on paper, we are still not there yet…. Negotiations will lead to a deal, sooner or later.”
What has been remarkable about the negotiations is the integrity of the diplomatic process: none of the seven nations involved, despite their differences, have leaked details of the talks. That is particularly rare for subjects involving either the Middle East or nuclear proliferation.
Little is still known about what really remains in dispute. The six major powers want to severely limit Iran’s ability to enrich uranium or produce plutonium that might be used for a bomb; they have discussed various formulas to achieve that goal, including inspections and changes at facilities. They want to insure that the so-called “break-out time” required for Iran to produce a bomb is at least a year.
Iran, in turn, wants the economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and others to be lifted quickly, rather than in slow stages. Even if Congress refuses to soften the U.S. sanctions, the U.N., by lifting its sanctions, could alter the current international mood, which is set against doing business with Tehran. Once the U.N. sanctions are removed, winning international consensus to reimpose them would be far tougher to achieve.
During the next seven months, the basic terms of the current interim deal between Iran and the six major powers will remain in effect. Iran will continue to freeze its nuclear program, and international inspections will continue on a daily basis. In turn, Tehran will get access to about five billion dollars—seven hundred million a month—from its oil revenues that were frozen in foreign banks. (Because of various sanctions, Iran currently has some hundred billion dollars in assets locked in foreign accounts.)
“The world is safer because this program is in place,” Kerry said. “At the end of four months, if we have not agreed on major elements at that point in time and there is no clear path forward, we can revisit how we then want to proceed.”
The Administration intends to persist. As President Obama told George Stephanopoulos, on Sunday, “What a deal would do is take a big piece of business off the table and perhaps begin a long process in which the relationship not just between Iran and us but the relationship between Iran and the world, and the region, begins to change.”

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Wall Street Journal

By Robin Wright 
Two months after its first airstrikes against Islamic State, Washington has finally named its latest military operation in the Middle East. The delay was curious. Maybe it was hard to come up with a title that embraced the massive but amorphous nature of this novelintervention against Islamic State, an extremist movement (also known as ISIS or ISIL) that has gobbled up vast chunks of Iraq and Syria.
The choice–”Operation Inherent Resolve”–has both a loneliness and a longness about it, and even a sadness. It reflects both the dashed hopes of the past and the distance anticipated before future gains. It doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence either. Indeed, it almost sounds despondent.
Operation Inherent Resolve also stands in stark contrast to the more optimistic names of the past three U.S. wars in the Middle East and south Asia: In 1991, the United States launched the robust-sounding Operation Desert Storm to oust Iraq from little Kuwait. Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, launched in 2001, had an idealistic ring to it, especially as a response to the 9/11 attacks. In 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom was supposed to signal the creation of a new democracy after the toppling of a notorious dictator.
All three of those operations were messier and longer than anticipated. They also had unintended consequences that deferred or muddied straightforward U.S. goals. The military moniker for this newest battle reflects those realities.
A communique issued Wednesday by U.S. Central Command, which is running this operation, explained the choice:
“The name Inherent Resolve is intended to reflect the unwavering resolve and deep commitment of the U.S. and partner nations in the region and around the globe to eliminate the terrorist group ISIL and the threat they pose to Iraq, the region and the wider international community.  It also symbolizes the willingness and dedication of coalition members to work closely with our friends in the region and apply all available dimensions of national power necessary–diplomatic, informational, military, economic–to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.”
Whatever the outcome, there are clearly fewer illusions about what it may take to win–in almost any form–this latest war.

Thursday, October 9, 2014


The Ebola Panic and Racism
By Robin Wright 
 The tragedy of Ebola is not just its staggering toll. It's also the implicit racism that the deadly virus has spawned. The anecdotes are sickening, particularly a Reuters report this week that children of African immigrants in Dallas -- little ones with no connection to Thomas Duncan, the Liberian Ebola patient who died Wednesday in a local hospital -- have been branded "Ebola kids" simply because of their heritage or skin color.

In both the United States and Europe, Ebola is increasing racial profiling and reviving imagery of the "Dark Continent." The disease is persistently portrayed as West African, or African, or from countries in a part of the world that is racially black, even though nothing medically differentiates the vulnerability of any race to Ebola.

Newsweek cover last month showed a picture of a chimpanzee with the headline: "A Back Door for Ebola: Smuggled Bushmeat Could Spark a U.S. Epidemic." Whatever the intent, the picture was wrong.

Turns out the story was probably wrong, too, as a Washington Post investigation revealed. The new Ebola outbreak "likely had nothing to do with bushmeat consumption," the Post reported, and there is no conclusive evidence that Ebola has been passed from animals to humans. A theory on animal-to-human transmission with some limited traction centers on dead fruit bats, not chimps.

"There is virtually no chance that 'bushmeat' smuggling could bring Ebola to America," the Post concluded.

But the damage has been done. And as panic deepens, the danger is that racism -- on planes and public transportation, in lines, on streets, in glances -- deepens further, too.

Ebola is a human tragedy, just like enterovirus D68, which causes sudden muscle weakness and severe respiratory problems, particularly among children. It has shown up in almost all the 50 states, with about 500 Americans infected so far, far more than ever. And it has begun to kill,beginning with a 4-year-old boy in New Jersey. Five new cases were reported in New Jersey alone on Tuesday. And there are no antiviral vaccines or cures. Yet enterovirus D68 is known by a scientific name and number. (Unfortunately for Africans, the Ebola virus was named after the Congolese river where the first outbreak was detected).

The saga of Thomas Duncan reflects racial perceptions. His girlfriend, Louise, whom he had reportedly been visiting in Dallas, had publicly begged for him to be given the same experimental ZMapp medication given to two (white) American missionaries who were infected in Africa and recently flown back to the United States.

"I'm just asking God and asking the American government for the same medicine they're giving people that come from Liberia," she said during an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper. "Please, please, please, please, help me save his life. ...Talk to doctors. They'll find means to get a medicine to cure him. He's so young."

Louise refused to allow her last name to be used for fear of repercussions. Unfortunately, doctors and the pharmaceutical developer said there was no longer any ZMapp left for Duncan or any other victim. But the imagery that accompanied his plight lingers: Whites can be flown to the United States or Europe at any expense, while Africans are left to die unattended on the streets of Liberia or Sierra Leone. Or now, without ZMapp, in Dallas.

"It's easy for the world -- the powerful world, who are largely non-African, non-people of color -- to ignore the suffering of poor, black people," Harvard Medical School professor Joia Mukherjee said on PRI's "The World" last month. It's easy, she said, to "other-ize" the Ebola crisis.

Fear too often contorts morality and humanity.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Wall Street Journal

Why Kobani Matters: 
The US Litmus Test
By Robin Wright 
Very few Americans had heard of Kobani until a couple of days ago. But the sleepy Syrian border town, a few football fields away from Turkey, has become a microcosm of the U.S. challenge in fighting Islamic State—and underscores why Syria is likely to be a far tougher campaign than Iraq.

Whatever happens this week, Kobani has strategic value now and down the road. It is the access route into Turkey, an important NATO ally of the United States and a country that literally spans Asia and Europe. Kobani–also known as Ayn al-Arab, or Spring of the Arabs–has long been the route of trains and trucks between Turkey and Syria.

So whoever controls Kobani also controls a gateway on an important border. On Monday, Islamic State fighters penetrated enough of the city to plant their chilling black flag atop a building within a mile of the city center–and visible from Turkey.

To halt the militants’ three-week-old offensive, U.S. warplanes began dropping bombs around Kobani on Monday. The strikes, which continued on Tuesday, have taken out five armed vehicles, a tank and something that’s been only vaguely described as an “IS unit,” according to U.S. Central Command reports.

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went to the border Tuesday to warn thatU.S.-led airstrikes are not enough to stop Islamic State extremists–in Kobani or elsewhere. He is probably right–for several reasons.

First, Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has the advantage in arms and numbers against a motley collection of Kurdish fighters with limited skills and vintage equipment. The Kurdish militia, notably including female fighters, has fought nobly over the past month. But ISIS has bigger and better stuff, including American war materiel seized from the Iraqi army and brought back into Syria. The tank that U.S. strikes destroyed this week may well have been of American origin.

The United States has said it will work with local forces. But there’s a profound difference–actually, a huge military imbalance–between the capabilities of sophisticated warplanes and a modest and outnumbered militia on the ground (some of whose members still wear the baggy trousers of traditional Kurds).

Second, thundering air power can be daunting, but sometimes the effect is more psychological than physical. Finding conspicuous, clear-cut targets isn’t easy, especially once fighters are no longer on open roads, or manning exposed checkpoints, or commanding artillery or tanks. Look at Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza. Hamas survived, as it has in past showdowns, even though Israel has vastly more capable war planes as well as air defense systems to block Hamas rockets. Hamas could be elusive. So is ISIS.

The daily communiques from U.S. Central Command are telling. Big costly bombs fired by big costly warplanes have been knocking a fair number of “armed vehicles,” which may be little more than a pick-up truck with a weapon mounted on the back. But they have not yet set back the ISIS campaign in Syria.

In Iraq, airpower has made a difference since the United States intervened on Aug. 8, though the gains have been strikingly small so far.
U.S. bombs initially changed the military dynamics in Iraq, buying at least a bit of time. American intervention helped save thousands of Yazidis who had been stranded on Mount Sinjar, surrounded by ISIS extremists. It helped prevent Islamic State from moving into Kurdistan, in northern Iraq. And it pushed ISIS militants away from the strategic Mosul Dam.

In Syria, however, the goals, targets, and impact are likely to be far harder.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Wall Street Journal

On Jewish and Muslim Holidays, A Reminder of Commonalities
By Robin Wright 
The world’s Jews begin marking the holiest time of their year Friday in Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement, which begins at dusk, is observed with reflection, repentance for sins of the past year, and fasting.
Also Friday, Muslims around the world begin marking the holiest day on their religious calendar. The Day of Arafat, the most important part of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, is a time of atoning for past sins and praying for forgiveness. Many Muslims who are not in the holy city of Mecca often fast from afar.
If only…
It is no accident that the two faiths share common history and common prophets. For Jews, Abraham was the first of their faith, its literal father. His life is chronicled in the Old Testament.
For Muslims, Abraham is the father of all three monotheistic religions beginning with Judaism. The Eid al-Adha, part of the Haj immediately after the Day of Arafat, marks Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to prove his love and loyalty to God. His life is chronicled in the Koran.
If only…
For all their rivalries, the two faiths have played important roles in each other’s past–in positive ways. The Ottoman empire formally invited Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal to immigrate in the late 15th century. Sultan Beyazid II reportedly said, “Ye call Ferdinand a wise king, he who makes his land poor and ours rich!”
During World War II, Morocco’s King Mohammed V decreed that the 200,000 Jews in the predominantly Muslim country should not wear the yellow star, as they did in Nazi-occupied France. “There are no Jews in Morocco. There are only subjects,” he said.
One of Judaism’s most important rabbis was Maimonides, who was appointed court physician by Saladdin, one of history’s most powerful Muslim leaders. Maimonides’ philosophical works were recognized in both the Islamic and Jewish worlds.
The two religions share many practical traditions too: Their traditional calendars are lunar, based on the cycles of the moon instead of the sun. The observant practice the same dietary laws of no blood, carrion, or swine. The observant require modest dress of women, including hair covering, and beards and a prayer cap for men. They both believe in the core daily struggle to faithfully observe the faith.
The two religions have much more in common, even their greetings: Shalom in Hebrew, Salam in Arabic. Both mean peace.

If only….

Friday, September 26, 2014

The New Yorker

Iran's Dinner Diplomacy
By Robin Wright 
Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, did not shake hands with Barack Obama at the United Nations this week, a year after their celebrated cell-phone chat. The two men didn’t even pass each other in the hallway. But Rouhani did give a quiet dinner at his hotel on Tuesday for twenty former American officials—including a secretary of state, three national-security advisers, and a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—from all six Administrations since the 1979 revolution.
He and his guests sat at four tables arranged in a rectangle, around a four-foot-tall bouquet of showy flowers, including pastel gladioli, an Iranian favorite. The private event may have been more important in shaping the thinking of Washington’s policy community than Rouhani’s speech to the General Assembly yesterday.
It’s crunch time for diplomacy on Iran’s controversial nuclear program, with not much moving lately and the November 24th deadline looming. Tehran and Washington have also, suddenly, found themselves with common cause in confronting the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. The ISIS threat was Rouhani’s primary focus during his week of intensive public diplomacy in New York. It overshadowed the nuclear issue—and redefined Tehran’s motive for wanting a deal.
“I deeply regret to say that terrorism has become globalized—from New York to Mosul, from Damascus to Baghdad, from the Easternmost to the Westernmost parts of the world, from Al-Qaeda to Daesh,” Rouhani told the General Assembly. (Daesh is another name for ISIS.) “The extremists of the world have found each other and have put out the call: ‘Extremists of the world unite.’ But are we united against the extremists?”
Rouhani blamed unnamed intelligence agencies, implicitly in oil-rich Arab countries, for putting “blades in the hands of madmen, who spare no one.” And he indicted the West, for “strategic blunders” that spawned havens of chaos exploited by extremists, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. He challenged the legality of the new U.S.-led military campaign in Syria, operating without an international mandate or an invitation by the Syrian government. (Iraq did request intervention.) He suggested that bombing Syria was a violation akin to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
As in previous U.N. speeches by Iranian leaders, Rouhani portrayed the Islamic Republic as ever the innocent neighbor, victimized by others’ misdeeds. Iran is actually on the State Department’s official list for sponsoring terrorist groups, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas. For three years, Iran’s aid, arms, and advisers have helped Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, to beat back both secular rebels and Islamic extremists.
But the ISIS threat has generated a new willingness, even among naysayers, for Tehran and Washington to listen to each other, despite differences over what to do about it. Rouhani’s language, including a reference to the “savages’’ of the Islamic State, echoed the speeches of Obama and other Western leaders at the U.N. this week.

The mood at the dinner was subdued, even somber, I am told. After a meal of Middle Eastern dishes, heavy on lamb and rice, Rouhani engaged in a give-and-take for almost two hours. Among his guests were the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the former national-security advisers Stephen Hadley, Samuel Berger, and Brent Scowcroft, the former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, and the former congresswoman Jane Harman, who served on the House Intelligence, Homeland Security, and Armed Services Committees.
“It was a pretty stellar group of Americans,” James Dobbins, a special envoy to crisis zones for the Clinton, Bush, and Obama Administrations, told me. “It was a tribute to the importance of the issues and our fascination with the individual that the Iranians could attract such a group.” The event was coördinated by the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank led by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, and Suzanne DiMaggio.
Rouhani, a mid-ranking Shiite cleric who wears a white turban (signifying that he is not a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad), took five questions at a time.
“Some he dodged. Some weren’t answered satisfactorily. But some were very interesting exchanges,” Berger, Bill Clinton’s national-security adviser, said. “I was impressed by him. My impression was that he wants a [nuclear] agreement. I think he sees it as an important path. Whether we have the room or they have the flexibility, I don’t know.”
Reactions varied widely. Some guests felt that Rouhani genuinely wants to do business with the United States. “He wants to engage, and I think that’s very positive,” Scowcroft, George H. W. Bush’s national-security adviser, told me. “One of our problems with Iran for a number of years has been that the mullahs, or whoever runs the place, have not wanted real engagement.”
But another former official, who did not want to be quoted, was scornful of Rouhani, and others were skeptical. Hadley, George W. Bush’s national-security adviser, described Iran’s President as “formidable” and “tough,” even when Rouhani was arguing that nuclear talks could be “a stepping stone” for future collaboration with the United States.
Robert Einhorn, who until last year was a member of the U.S. nuclear-negotiation team and is now at the Brookings Institution, said, “The theme he was trying to stress was that a nuclear deal was a gateway opportunity, and if only there was political will on the nuclear issue then there’d be real opportunity to coöperate on a whole range of issues. He mentioned it four or five times.”
One of those issues is Afghanistan, which shares a five-hundred-and-seventy-mile border with Iran. In 2001, after the Taliban was ousted, the world’s only theocracy and its most powerful democracy, in a rare collaboration, worked together on forming a new government. Dobbins and the current Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, were the primary brokers. Both were at the dinner. Now Iran and the U.S. are worried about whether Afghanistan, still a fractured country, can survive political fissures after a disputed election, in the midst of a Taliban insurgency, and with NATO drawing down military forces.

“They called on me, so I said a few words about Afghanistan,” Dobbins told me. “I said that a few weeks ago we almost saw the overthrow of an Afghan constitutional order that Iran and the U.S. had worked together to put in place. We’ve overcome those difficulties, but a new national unity government is very fragile and needs support. I said we’d be more successful if Iran and the United States collaborated more closely. Rouhani responded positively. He effectively confirmed that our approaches were similar.”
Rouhani’s answers were “reasonable, in the main, except when he had to defend Syria,” the career diplomat Thomas Pickering told me. “He did try to strike the right note and find helpful things to say, but he didn’t give away for free things he was hanging on to. He knew his brief.” As for Rouhani’s decision not to shake hands with Obama this year, Pickering said, “Why do it if it would not get him an answer on the major question and might get some serious backlash back home? Why do it if it’s not going to push the ball ahead in the future in a way that would bring him tangible benefits or get sanctions lifted?”
At a breakfast that I and other journalists attended with Rouhani on the same day as the dinner, the Iranian leader acknowledged that any nuclear deal was likely to face a “dust bowl” backlash from conservatives in Tehran.
The unexplained detention, two months ago, of the Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, who is American-born, and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, an Iranian journalist, is widely seen as a political ploy by Iran’s conservative judiciary to signal limits on Rouhani’s Presidential power. He and Zarif have both published op-eds in the Post during the past year. Both have intervened to win the couple’s release—so far to no avail. “The judiciary is independent,” Rouhani told several audiences in New York.

Rouhani predicted that Obama, too, would face opposition at home. He wasn’t wrong. This morning, Ted Cruz, the Republican Senator from Texas, declared, “This week, the government of Iran is sitting down with the United States government, swilling Chardonnay in New York City, to discuss … a very, very bad deal that tragically is setting the stage for Iran to acquire nuclear-weapons capability.” (Only soft drinks were served at the dinner; the Iranian delegation adheres to Islam’s strict ban on alcohol.)
At the breakfast, Rouhani recalled that when he spoke with Obama on the phone last year they had discussed “in depth” the potential for collaboration—provided they could broker an agreement guaranteeing that Tehran could develop independent nuclear energy without acquiring a nuclear weapon. As to the question of possible coöperation on other matters, he said that he had answered Obama with a Persian proverb: “Let’s raise the baby we just gave birth to before we have another.” This year, given the success of ISIS, the Iranians seem to be in a bit more of a hurry to get that process started.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Wall Street Journal

Is the Afghan Deal Viable?

By Robin Wright 

After the largest vote recount ever undertaken anywhere, the Afghan election is finally over. But a pivotal question still looms: Will the novel political compromise–with a unique division of power between a president and a “chief executive officer”–actually work? It’s dubious.

The two competitors signed a power-sharing agreement Sunday in Kabul, then embraced, albeit tepidly. The rivalry remains so intense that the country’s Independent Election Commission opted not to reveal the final election recount, which was paid for by the United States and conducted by the United Nations. It was too volatile–at least for now–and too vulnerable to further dispute.
So much for transparency in a new democracy.
The bigger danger ahead is that the deal will not resolve the political rivalry between the camps of the two candidates. Ashraf Ghani, the former World Bank economist and Afghan finance minister, has been declared president. Former foreign minister Abdullah Abullah (or someone he designates) is the new CEO, which is vaguely defined as a kind of prime minister. And there’s the rub.
Afghanistan has an executive presidency. But the four-page agreement signed Sunday gives the CEO significant powers over the country’s cabinet as well as over a newly created council of ministers. And presidential powers have not been changed or redefined.
The outcome is supposed to be a coalition government. But Afghanistan’s new political pact is a bit like saying that the system will be both presidential and parliamentary–and that there are two effective heads of government. In a fragile society with a history of warlordism and ethnic violence, the new formula is still susceptible to implosion.
Secretary of State John Kerry journeyed twice to Kabul this summer to broker the deal. The White House said Sunday that the agreement “restores confidence in the way forward” and “marks an important opportunity for unity and increased stability.”
Three questions remain:
First, is the pact a short-term solution that ends up contributing to long-term instability, especially as NATO winds down its military presence? Afghanistan might have been better served if its first peaceful and democratic transition of power had been a decisive hand-off from one executive to another. It’s hard to imagine a comparable power-sharing arrangement–at least one that worked well–between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater, for example, or John Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
Second, what impact will the beleaguered election process have on Afghans, who defied death threats and violence to vote–twice. Widespread fraud was alleged in the April election among eight candidates and the June run-off between the top two. As the election saga dragged out, Afghanistan’s economy and security situation deteriorated. Will Afghans believe in the process enough to keep participating?
Third, the constitution does not include a prime minister so will have to be amended. Can Afghanistan’s volatile political environment endure a formal debate, which could trigger new tensions over the division of power? And what happens in the meantime?

“This whole agreement and process is out of Afghan law and unconstitutional,” said Mohammad Ali Elizadah, a member of parliament. “I don’t think we will have an efficient and effective government.”

Friday, September 19, 2014

The New Yorker

Iran & the Coalition of Repenters
When I was in Tehran last December, I called on Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, who had been the student ringleader of the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover and hostage crisis. His hair is white these days, and coiffed, and he has the girth and the slouch of his years. He still speaks with the same intensity, but his cause now is the need for coöperation between Iran and the United States.

“We have common ground in fighting terrorism,” he told me, sitting on an elegant settee in his apartment. “I would like to spend all my energy to heal this wound”—he meant the legacy of the hostage crisis—so that both countries might confront the “cancerous tumor” of Sunni extremism in the Middle East. “Shiites get on better with the West,” he said. “Sunni leaders are more radical than Shiites.”
I’d come to Iran to report on the new nuclear diplomacy between Tehran and Washington. But Iranians often brought up a different subject. The Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, warned me about a frightening group that had originated in Iraq. Little noticed by the rest of the world, it was operating from Syrian bases, had a cult-like attraction, and was clearly trying to get back into Iraq.

“The so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”—ISIS—“is a group that is killing more people today in Baghdad than they are killing in Damascus,” he told me. “These are very, very dangerous groups of people, and we need to take corrective measures in order to preclude their expansion in other parts of the region. And, also, we need to work together in order to contain the spread of sectarian tension and violence in the region.” He went on: “It is in the interest of all players to help facilitate a resolution to the Syrian crisis, and Iran is simply one of them.”

A month later, the Iranians were disinvited from the international conference in Switzerland, attended by nearly forty countries, on how to end the Syrian civil war. Tehran believed that it could help broker a new government, as it had for Afghanistan after the Taliban’s ouster, in 2001. Iran had a four-point plan, which included a ceasefire and democratic elections that would be monitored by the United Nations but would allow President Bashar al-Assad to campaign to keep his office. Other participants balked. The reasons reflected regional rivalries and sectarian tensions, and, more fundamentally, Iran’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism by the State Department and its longstanding military ties to Assad. The Islamic Republic had credibility problems.

The diplomatic initiative, which brought together representatives of the Syrian government and Western-backed rebels, quickly fizzled, and ISIS gained ground against both the government and the moderate rebels. By June, black-hooded gunmen were racing their pickups across the Syrian border back into Iraq.

To salvage Iraq, another peace effort was convened in Paris earlier this week, with representatives from more than two dozen countries. Again, Iran was excluded, owing mainly to pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two Sunni sheikhdoms that deeply distrust Iran’s Shiite theocracy. Iran lashed back, arguing that it’s now stuck mopping up a crisis created by the mistakes and miscalculations of others. In New York this week, before the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, Zarif led the charge. “The United States responded to this menace long after it started,” he said at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Iran was not invited to Paris, which I would call a Coalition of Repenters, because most participants in that meeting, in one form or another, provided support to ISIS in the course of its creation and upbringing and expansion—actually, at the end of the day, creating a Frankenstein that came to haunt its creators.”

The United States shared the blame, he said, because Iraq had not become a “terrorism magnet” until after the American intervention, in 2003. The thousands of foreign recruits now swelling the Islamic State’s ranks didn’t come from Iran, he noted, but from the countries “sitting around the table in Paris.”

Yet, after a decade of trying to drive each other out of Iraq, the United States and Iran find themselves on the same side. Last month, Washington and Tehran separately came to the military rescue of the beleaguered Iraqi government after it lost a third of its territory, as ISIS threatened both Baghdad and the Kurdish capital of Erbil. U.S. warplanes began air strikes on August 8th. Iran flew in planeloads of equipment and military advisers to Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Shiite militias.

Other countries in the new U.S.-led coalition will play their roles—French warplanes launched their first air strikes on ISIS earlier today—but the fact that Washington and Tehran have a shared interest in the outcome may prove just as decisive. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, disclosed this week that Washington had made at least three recent approaches to Tehran about Iraq—through Secretary of State John Kerry, the U.S. Ambassador in Baghdad, and the top U.S. negotiator at the Iran nuclear talks.
“I said no, because they have dirty hands,” Khamenei said on his official Web site. Washington, he declared, wants a “pretext to do in Iraq and Syria what it already does in Pakistan—bomb anywhere without authorization.” Zarif told me. “We have serious doubts about the willingness and ability of the United States to engage in a serious reaction to this menace across the board.” He meant ISIS. “This is a very mobile organization,” he said. “It’s not stationary so you can [just] attack it in Iraq.”

For all the rhetoric—perhaps for domestic consumption—Tehran does not oppose a virtual partnership with Washington on Iraq. “We were on the side of the Iraqi people, the Iraqi government, and the Kurdish government to actually help them fight ISIS,” Zarif said at the Council of Foreign Relations. “If the United States does the same, then it is up to the Iraqi government to coördinate how it wants to coördinate.”

But Zarif’s main pitch in New York—which is likely to be a theme of President Rouhani’s appearance at the United Nations next week—is that any campaign to eradicate the ISIS forces can’t rely on mere aerial bombardment. He told the Council, “We also need to stop providing them with those recruiting grounds, with those fertile possibilities of resentment, of disenfranchisement that can allow them to attract the youth in so many parts of the world, from the Middle East to Europe and the United States.” Next time, it was clear, Iran doesn’t want to be excluded from the process.
 And maybe it won’t be. Kerry hinted as much this afternoon, when he chaired a Security Council meeting on Iraq. The coalition required to eliminate ISIS, he said, “is not only, or even primarily, military in nature.” He went on, “It must be comprehensive, and include close collaboration across multiple lines of effort. It’s about taking out an entire network, decimating and discrediting a militant cult masquerading as a religious movement. There is a role for nearly every country in the world to play. Including Iran.”

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Wall Street Journal

Fighting the Islamic State:
A Name is a Name is a Coalition 

By Robin Wright   
It’s all in a name, after all. The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State is facing skepticism even before it gets off the ground, reflected in the assorted titles used to describe it.
“The Reluctant Posse,” offered Rami Khouri, the Beirut-based columnist for The Daily Star and Agence Global.
“It’s the Coalition of the Hesitant,” said Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of al Arabiyya, appearing on National Public Radio this week.
“A Coalition of Uncertainty,” offered Tom Lippman of the Middle East Institute in Washington.
I think I’d call it – for now – the House of Cards Club because it’s a precarious frame without support beams, floor plan, doors or windows or furnishings, much less full financing.
The Obama administration is clearly trying to build a coalition that is something in-between the alliances that fought the last two Iraq wars. It wants participation that is more credible than the token U.S.-led coalition that fought Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. But it appears willing to settle for an alliance less robust than the coalition of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, which, ironically, included troops from key Arab nations, even Syria.
Once the administration opted to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State, Secretary of State John Kerry scrambled to rally partners. Two hastily assembled summits this month – one in Jeddah of 10 Arab countries plus Turkey, the other in Paris bringing together 30 delegations from 26 countries – have produced a coalition largely in principle rather than in practice.
Their words are strong but their roles are vague. The imprecise language out of the two summits was participation “as appropriate.” Some of the commitments even seem tepid.
Jon Stewart poked fun at the coalition on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show Monday.
“Oh really, Arab partners don’t want to be named. … So you’ll join the coalition as long as no one knows you’re joining it. On the DL. Just as long as none of your buddies find out. It’s like our coalition is your hookup, that you pretend not to recognize us at parties but as you walking by us, you go: ‘I’ll see you in Kurdistan at 3 a.m.’ Well guess what? Guess what, Mister. We’ll take it. Anything that help us avoid another Mideast walk of shame.”

Some partners have imposed their own conditions. The Saudis and Emiratis reportedly threatened not to participate in the Paris conference if Iran was included, even though Tehran played a key role in formation of a new government in Baghdad and is advising the three Shiite militias now fighting—along with Kurdish Peshmerga forces—against the Islamic State. Operationally, France indicated a willingness to provide air power for Iraq—but not Syria.
There’s a lot of picking-and-choosing that is not in the spirit of a coalition, especially from countries far closer and more vulnerable than the U.S. Unless its members offer a lot more muscle and momentum, the coalition risks being more of a diplomatic idea than a military reality.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The New Yorker

Iraq: The Risks

By Robin Wright

In 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell commissioned two of the State Department’s most respected diplomats to write a candid assessment of the risks if the United States invaded Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The six-page memo, entitled “The Perfect Storm,” is still classified. Parts of it eventually leaked, however. Amid the enthusiasm to go to war, its warnings challenged conventional wisdom within the Bush Administration. It predicted that, at best, Saddam’s ouster would not magically transform Iraq, as one of the memo’s authors, Ryan Crocker, subsequently wrote. At worst, the invasion might unleash a multitude of forces that the United States was not equipped to confront or contain. The memo proved prescient.

A different Administration now faces the uncertainties of another Iraq war. American public opinion seems to be shifting in support of military action. On the eve of President Obama’s speech to the nation, and on the anniversary week of the September 11th attacks, seventy-one per cent of Americans said they fear that Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS (also called ISIL), now has the means to attack inside the United States, according to a CNN survey. A second poll, released today by the Washington Post-ABC, found that seven in ten Americans now favor a U.S. air campaign against the militants—up from forty-five per cent in June.

The menace posed by ISIS is undeniable, the danger of inaction great. “It is hard to overstate the threat that this organization poses,” Crocker, who served as Ambassador to Iraq from 2007 until 2009, wrote today in the Wall Street Journalin an enthusiastic call for immediate action. Yet the risks of another American intervention in Iraq, this country’s third war in a quarter century, also give serious pause.

For the United States, the best possible outcome would be for the militants to withdraw from their illusory state in Iraq to bases in Syria, where they might wither in the face of strengthened Syrian rebels; ideally, the rebels would also bring an end to the Assad regime in Damascus. Iraq and Syria, with their multicultural societies, would then have breathing room to incubate inclusive governments. That’s the goal, anyway.
The worst outcome would be another open-ended, treasury-sapping, coffin-producing, and increasingly unpopular war that fails to erase ISIS or resurrect Iraq. It might even, in time, become a symbolic graveyard of American greatness—as it was for the French and the British. The Middle East has a proven record of sucking us in and spitting us out.

The risks extend beyond Iraq as well. A broad alliance is the centerpiece of President Obama’s new strategy, and Secretary of State John Kerry departs today for Jordan and Saudi Arabia to beef up the ten-nation “core coalition” formed at the NATO summit in Wales last week. “Almost every country on earth has a role to play,” Kerry said yesterday. Washington needs the Arab world to give the mission its imprimatur and defray costs, and support from Sunni leaders is critical in persuading Iraq’s Sunni tribes to turn against Sunni extremists in ISIS. But the Arabs may be skeptical, given the failure of the Palestinian-Israeli peace initiative brokered by Kerry and the fact that NATO’s well-intentioned intervention in North Africa three years ago has all but transformed Libya into a failed state.

These are just the obvious risks, apparent even in the early days of a war that the Administration has conceded may last years, into the next Presidency. Washington has pledged to defeat ISIS, or “drive it to the gates of hell,” in Vice-President Biden’s words. That inevitably means some sort of second phase in Syria. And, potentially, in Lebanon, where the movement also has new roots. Or even in Jordan: thousands of Jordanians are reportedly now fighting in Iraq as jihadists alongside ISIS, and Jordan’s monarchy, on the other side of an amorphous desert border, feels vulnerable.

In the past six decades, the United States has arguably won only one big war both militarily and politically. Operation Desert Storm, in 1990-91, forced Saddam Hussein’s troops out of Kuwait and restored the royal family. Yet the unintended consequences haunt us still. The presence of “infidel” forces based in neighboring Saudi Arabia helped convert Osama bin Laden from a de-facto ally into the leader of Al Qaeda.
In the intervening years, the barometer of “winning” has gradually changed. Paul Hughes, a senior adviser at the United States Institute of Peace and a former Army planning officer during Operation Desert Storm, told me this week, “The idea that we can stomp the bejesus out of a rival and put a bayonet to its throat does not define victory as it once did. The last person standing on the battlefield is no longer necessarily the winner.”
Success will depend foremost on the cohesion of a unity government of Iraq’s fractious politicos, the disparate Arabs and Kurds, and rival religious sects. That has been an unachievable goal since the second American intervention, in 2003, ousted Saddam. The political chasm doomed the otherwise successful American surge of troops in 2007, when the Shiite-dominated government failed to follow through in sharing power with the Sunni tribes that had ousted Al Qaeda.
Yesterday, more than four months after Iraq’s national elections, the country’s leaders finally formed a new government. Secretary of State John Kerry heralded it as a “major milestone,” with “the potential to unite all of Iraq’s diverse communities for a strong Iraq.” He said that the United States now stands “shoulder to shoulder with the Iraqis.” President Obama called to congratulate the new Prime Minister, Haidar al-Abadi, after his government was sworn in.
The process almost imploded, however, when disgruntled Kurds threatened a last-minute boycott over Baghdad’s failure, since January, to provide the Kurds with their agreed upon seventeen per cent of Iraq’s oil revenues, leaving northern Kurdistan unable to pay provincial salaries or its peshmerga fighters. The government is also short of the two positions most pivotal to national security, since the squabbling factions can’t agree on a minister for defense or for the interior.
During the Ottoman Empire, the land mass that is today’s Iraq was ruled in three distinct vilayets, or provinces, centered on Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. The primordial identities in those provinces—based on Shiite and Sunni religions as well as Arab or Kurdish ethnicity—still define Iraq. To accommodate the divisions, Iraq’s new government is bloated with three deputy prime ministers and three vice-presidents. (One of the vice-presidents is Nouri al-Maliki, whose autocratic rule over the past eight years produced the current crisis.) In a toxic climate, Prime Minister Abadi faces formidable challenges in trying to enact reforms, redistribute power, equitably share oil revenues—and prevent the government from fraying further.

The Administration’s strategy is premised in large part on government forces fighting ISIS on the ground, supported by foreign air power. But so far the Iraqi Army, which lost four divisions in the early days of the militants’ sweep across a third of the country’s landmass, has left most of the fighting to the Kurds’ peshmerga and to three Shiite militias that are loyal to their own leaders rather than to Baghdad.

The goal of a new intervention is to restore modern Iraq, carved out of the dying Ottoman Empire a century ago. But it also risks the reverse, accelerating Iraq’s breakup, especially without effective national-security forces to fight in its name or hold it together.
Last week, in a joint operation, the peshmerga and Shiite militias succeeded in liberating Amerli, a town of fifteen thousand, from ISIS. As victories go, it may have been a microcosm of what is to come. After the town was secured, the liberators went after each other. According to the Washington Post, Shiite militiamen were waving rifles at the peshmerga and warning that they were not welcome in the town. “We fought for three months here, and now we have to fight these bastards,” one of the peshmerga fighters told the Post. “If this continues, we’ll have another war.”