Sunday, November 2, 2008

Stuart Levey’s War

November 2, 2008
It has been almost 30 years since the last shah, with a small jar of Iranian soil in his hand and the empress by his side, flew into exile, ending 2,500 years of dynastic rule and a valuable American alliance. The United States vowed to “honor the will” of Iran’s people, and its ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, mused that Ayatollah Khomeini might be hailed as “somewhat of a saint, when we get over the panic.” Over the next nine months, however, young zealots twice seized the American Embassy and its diplomats, a harbinger of tensions to come. Washington has struggled to figure out what to do about Tehran ever since. Fear still defines policy.

Iran will be perhaps the most daunting strategic challenge for a new American president. There is no shortage of problems elsewhere: America is overextended in Iraq, underdeployed in Afghanistan, constrained on Pakistan and stymied on the Arab-Israeli conflict. But Iran is different. It has become the superpower in the region where the United States has invested the most manpower, money, blood and prestige. Washington can’t make enduring progress in the Middle East or South Asia without a denouement in the long showdown with Iran.

But what tools does Washington have? Since 1979, five presidents have failed to influence, engage or outwit Iran. The Carter administration accepted the revolution — then took in the shah, which led Iranians to suspect that Washington wanted to restore the monarchy, as it had in 1953. When radicals took the embassy, Washington froze Iran’s assets and broke off relations. The Reagan administration put Iran on the terrorism list after Lebanese Shiite suicide bombers struck two American diplomatic offices and a Marine barracks in Beirut — then sent envoys to Tehran to swap arms for hostages abducted in Lebanon. The first Bush administration promised “good will begets good will,” then isolated Tehran once it helped free the last hostages in Beirut. When Iran offered a lucrative petroleum deal to an American company, the Clinton administration banned the import of Iranian oil, but it later lifted an embargo on Iranian caviar, carpets and pistachios to signal a potential opening. The current Bush administration worked closely with Iran on Afghanistan after 9/11, then labeled it part of the “axis of evil.” It orchestrated four United Nations sanctions resolutions, then offered talks and trade if Tehran stopped enriching uranium that could be used in a nuclear weapon.

In short, each American administration since 1979 has been driven to such distraction by Iran that it has had to continually revise its own policies. Can a new president do better?

He will inherit few effective tools. Diplomacy is, at the moment, going nowhere. Efforts in the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency have done little to prevent Iran from growing ever closer to acquiring the capacity to manufacture nuclear fuel. At the same time, there is very little genuine enthusiasm in Washington today for a military option in Iran. Other endeavors have had limited impact. Last year, Congress approved an astonishing $400 million for intelligence operations against Iran, but senior officials acknowledge that covert actions — primarily aid to ethnic proxies and broadcasts into Iran — are only an irritant to its security services. American officers have actually had trouble finding effective ways to spend much of the money. In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. Special Forces have focused on the Quds Force, Iran’s covert military wing, and its local agents. Dozens have been detained; truckloads of Iranian arms have been uncovered. Tehran has been forced to adapt its tactics, alter routes, pull back some of its people. But again, U.S. officials concede, the United States is unlikely to fully curb Iran’s involvement in its two neighbors, parts of which once belonged to Persia and share either a language or a religion.

What remains, in one form or another, is the idea of sanctions. Over the decades, Washington has embargoed imports from Iran, forbidden visas for officials and even sanctioned the entire Revolutionary Guard Corps — the first time the United States has ever sanctioned a section of another country’s military. But each effort has fallen short. Energy-hungry China now buys Iran’s oil in huge quantities. Tehran has found other outlets for trade and travel. And sanctions are slow to take effect.

One new concept, however, has begun to get Tehran’s attention. In January 2006, Stuart Levey, the under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department, was having breakfast in Bahrain when he noted a local newspaper article about a big Swiss bank that cut off business with Tehran. He clipped the article. It gave him an idea.
Governments traditionally focus on actions they can enforce themselves. Reading about the Swiss bank, Levey decided it was time to mobilize the private sector, starting with the world’s banks, to join the effort to sanction Iran. His idea was to prevent a country reliant on global trade — as an ancient empire, a station on the Silk Road across Asia and a modern petroleum powerhouse — from being able to do business outside its borders. “That could spark the right internal debate in Iran,” Levey told me when we met in his spacious Washington office, which was painted hunter green and decorated with collections of vintage American currency. Since that breakfast in Bahrain, he has managed to persuade the U.S. government to back his project; he has also made a lot of enemies in Tehran and created a policy legacy that the next president will have to deal with.

The best place to get a feeling for the challenge Iran poses to any sanctions program is Dubai, where Levey spent a great deal of time refining his approach. The cosmopolitan emirate, situated near the mouth of the Persian Gulf, is famed for an indoor ski slope and a man-made island in the shape of a palm tree, with villas for the superrich on each frond. But Dubai has also become the latest battleground for Iran and the United States, so in the late summer heat, I walked the concrete path along Dubai Creek, a grimy inlet that winds through a section of town long predating today’s slick skyscrapers. Old wooden dhows, each painted the traditional baby blue and white, were moored four and five abreast for more than a mile along the wharf. Crews using carts were hustling to load televisions and appliances, food and toys, tires and even cars to ferry to Iran.

Dubai’s citizens, unlike Iranians, are mostly Sunni and Arab. Yet trade across the gulf has gone on so long that many of Dubai’s elite, including members of the emir’s inner circle, are of Iranian descent. Each major change in Iran creates a new wave of migrants: merchants left in the 19th century to avoid Persia’s new tariffs; traditional families fled in the 1930s after the modernizing monarchy banned the chador; modern-minded Iranians left after the 1979 Islamic revolution forced women back into the chador.

The biggest migration, however, began five years ago, in anticipation of sanctions and other U.S. pressures. Thousands of Iranian businesses simply set up local offices, opened bank accounts and imported goods from abroad to Dubai. When wares arrived, they were turned around and sent to Iran by dhow, container ship or air. “The best place to do business in Iran,” an Iranian businessman quipped, “is in Dubai.” Dubai now has as many Iranians as it does its own citizens. Trade has steadily grown; according to Nasser Hashempour, vice president of the Iranian Business Council in Dubai, it topped $14 billion last year.

On my first day in Dubai, I had lunch at the Iranian Club, a compound with a sports facility, stadium, theater and hotel. The stadium is where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke last year. The hotel’s lobby had separate clocks for Tehran and Dubai, a half-hour apart. A manager’s office was decorated with pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini and Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader.

I later stopped at the Iranian mosque, now being expanded, across from the Iranian Hospital, which has tended to many of Dubai’s royals. I visited the Spice Market and chatted with Iranian merchants. At American University, I was told, Iranians are the second-largest group in the student body. They’re also among the biggest buyers and flippers of Dubai real estate. My hotel overlooking Dubai Creek had an Iranian clientele, an Iranian sports channel available in the rooms and an annex with Iranian-run businesses. It was within two blocks of Tehran Restaurant, Iranian shops where Farsi was more common than Arabic and several Iranian banks.

“There are so many Iranians here,” Hashempour said with a chuckle, “that we tell a joke: When people in Dubai are asked to pray for rain, it ends up raining in Iran.” Since 2003, the number of Iranians in the United Arab Emirates has doubled to more than 450,000, he told me, and the number of Iranian businesses quadrupled to almost 10,000. Most are in Dubai, giving it the world’s second-largest concentration of Iranian expatriates (after California).

Because Dubai has no oil, unlike the United Arab Emirates’ other sheikdoms, it has survived on trade — from its old wharf on the creek to the high-tech Jebel Ali, one of the world’s largest ports. Most traffic — including Israeli cargo — is for re-export elsewhere. At least 20 percent goes to Iran. So, despite sanctions, Iran’s shelves are well stocked, even with American goods. Maytag refrigerators, Diesel clothing and Victoria’s Secret lingerie are quite popular. Legal American exports to Iran — from clothing and cigarettes to musical instruments and bull semen, all considered agricultural, educational or humanitarian goods and thus exempt from sanctions — increased tenfold during the Bush administration.

“The easiest thing to do in the world today is trade,” the Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, told me over the summer when I met him in New York City. “Economic advantages attract partners. Right now, a number of American companies are working with Iran. But because of their conditions, I can’t give their names.”

Iranians now have an estimated $300 billion in assets in tiny Dubai alone. Emiratis profit handsomely from these ties: outside Dubai’s new free-trade zone, entrepreneurial foreigners need local partners, who must hold 51 percent of any business. Citizens of Dubai can earn up to $100,000 annually just by putting their names on a license, leaving the work to the Iranians. Iranian money is not alone in driving Dubai’s growth, one U.S. official told me, but there’s so much Iranian money in property, investment and trade that it’s hard to cut off. “Dubai,” he said, “is not going to shoot itself in the foot financially” for the sake of sanctions. Dubai and Iran are now so economically interdependent, local analysts told me, that the city-state has become to Iran something like what Hong Kong is to China. Sanctions seem only to strengthen such ties.

Stuart Levey says he thought his new sanctions could succeed where so many had failed. But he knew his idea might be a tough sell. He was not part of the Bush administration’s inner circle. Some officials still mispronounce his name. (It rhymes with “Chevy,” a Treasury official advised me.) In February 2006, his colleagues in the Treasury Department persuaded Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to let him travel with her to the Middle East, and he hoped to make his pitch at some point along the way. He waited, stop after stop; he spent most flights chatting with his seatmate, Gen. Raymond Odierno, the current commander of U.S. forces in Iraq who was then the Pentagon liaison with the State Department. “I did, often, feel like a fifth wheel,” Levey recalled. Finally, on the way home, he was summoned to Rice’s private cabin to lay out his seven-point proposal.

Levey’s pitch was simple: Banks were only as reputable as their clients’ practices. And the reputations of banks that did business with Iran were at risk as long as Iran financed extremists and pursued missile and nuclear technology. More basically, he argued, Iran had bad banking habits, with little oversight to prevent money laundering. It had even begun asking foreign banks to remove traces of a transaction’s ties to Iran, a practice known as “stripping.”
Levey’s idea was to press banks not to do business with Iran until it complied with international standards. Rice bought in. “She was thrilled,” Levey wrote in an e-mail message to his staff from the plane. “She especially liked options 1, 2, 6 and, if necessary, 7. . . . Truly, this one hour made the whole trip worthwhile.”

“It gave us a new lever,” Rice later told me. “It’s not sanctions in the traditional sense.” Levey has since made more than 80 foreign visits of his own to talk to more than five dozen banks. Several countries required multiple trips to reassure suspicious (or just annoyed) governments about American intentions — and then to persuade the banks. Levey offered specifics. U.S. intelligence, he told them, had traced $50 million transmitted by Iran’s Bank Saderat through a London subsidiary to a charity affiliated with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Saderat, which has 3,400 offices worldwide, is Iran’s equivalent of Citibank. Its Lebanon branch, Levey said, also supposedly sent millions of dollars to Palestinian extremists.

The Treasury Department then started blacklisting Iran’s biggest banks, urging other nations to follow suit. In 2006, Saderat was barred from direct or indirect business with U.S. banks. In early 2007, the department sanctioned Bank Sepah for financing projects to develop missiles that could carry nuclear weapons. (Sepah, meaning “army,” was established with money from Iran’s military pension fund and is now associated with Revolutionary Guard projects.) The Treasury Department then blacklisted Bank Melli, Iran’s largest bank, for supposedly helping to finance defense industries under U.N. sanctions.

Iran has angrily denied illicit activity. Its banks pledged compliance with international practices. Tehran complained to the International Monetary Fund. Some banks even wrote to the Treasury Department to protest. Iran’s Central Bank governor spoke of “financial terrorism.” Yet the innovative efforts have spread. Actions against Iranian banks became a feature of Security Council sanctions resolutions, beginning in 2006. Last June, the European Union blacklisted Melli and froze its assets. Last month, Australia sanctioned Melli and Saderat, while the U.S. blacklisted the Export Development Bank of Iran, which it claimed had taken over many of Sepah’s accounts and provided services for missile programs. The Treasury Department is also scrutinizing Iran’s Central Bank and considering blacklisting it too, which could undermine not only the country’s banking system but also international support for the U.S. campaign.

The momentum has surprised even Levey, a Harvard-educated lawyer who once specialized in white-collar criminal defense. Big banks in Britain, France, Germany, Japan and Italy curbed business with Iran, even with longstanding clients. Only a few would admit it; most prefer to silently go along and keep their options open. “They’re not happy with what’s happening,” a European diplomat told me. “They complain about U.S. pressure, but accept it. They hope it will pass soon.”

Even banks in Muslim countries, from Bahrain to Malaysia, have cut back their Iran business, bankers told me. Most surprising has been the shift by several Chinese banks. “We haven’t had Chinese banks tell me that they won’t do deals with Iran,” Levey told me. “They just stop.”
So far, more than 80 banks have curtailed business with Iran. A European bank official told me its business dropped from hundreds of millions of dollars annually to zero. A Middle East banker said his institution no longer did business with the sanctioned banks. Gulf bankers said medium- and long-term credit for development and trade was drying up. Banks Saderat, Melli and Sepah — which together serviced 80 percent of Iran’s international trade — were losing customers and struggling to find new banking relationships, despite many offices abroad. (None of these sources wanted to be identified as cooperating with the U.S. Treasury Department.) The private sector has proved “quicker to respond” than governments, Rice said. “This really relies on the kind of self-interest — to protect their reputation and protect their investment.”

“Stuart Levey’s war is like ‘Charlie Wilson’s War,’ ” a U.S. official said over coffee in the State Department cafeteria, referring to a former Texas congressman’s campaign to change policy on Afghanistan, a saga made into a movie. “It’s the most direct and aggressive stuff we’ve got going. It delivers.”

The Treasury Department also galvanized global groups. The Financial Action Task Force — the world’s financial watchdog representing the 34 biggest economies — warned that Iran poses a “significant vulnerability” for the world’s financial system. And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, including 30 of the world’s richest nations, has twice lowered Iran’s credit risk — to a 6 on a 7-point scale.
Iran has noticed. On his final day in office, last April, the ousted finance minister, Davoud Danesh Jaffari, complained bitterly about Levey. “We had embarked on a serious and breathtaking game of chess with America’s Treasury Department,” he told his staff. “They had assigned one of their Zionist deputies to halt the Iranian economy. This person would personally travel to many countries around the world. He would use incentives and encouragement to request cooperation against Iran, and if he failed to get any results he would use threats to pursue his goal.”

Treasury officials deny foreign banks were warned that their access to the U.S. financial system was in peril if they didn’t cooperate on Iran. “We never threaten,” Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. told me. “We talk about how important it is not to violate the rules and engage in illicit transactions.” Foreign bankers, however, insisted that threats were always implicit.

The financial squeeze on Iran has had a ripple effect. Iran has the world’s second-largest natural-gas reserves, after Russia. The world’s largest natural-gas field is shared by Iran and Qatar. Development of Iran’s share has been dragging on for years. “Qatar cut a deal quickly and was on its merry way,” said Fareed Mohamedi, an executive in the Washington offices of PFC Energy. “But Tehran never had the funding or technology to develop the gas field independently.” Iran played hardball with foreign firms over development contracts. It wanted to pay them in oil rather than cash. Then came banking pullouts. “We’ve been extremely effective at dissuading multinational oil companies from going into Iran,” said Cliff Kupchan, a former State Department official now at the Eurasia Group who has visited Iran. “Like with the international banks, we’ve invoked reputation risks. That really cramped the Iranian energy sector and could, more or less, impair the gas sector for the foreseeable future. They say they will do a lot of it themselves, but their technological capabilities are uncertain, at best.’

Ordinary businesses have been hard hit, too, according to Western officials and Iranians. Big companies and small bazaaris — as traditional merchants are called in Iran — are increasingly forced to pay for imports in advance, in cash. Exporters are losing clients; raw materials for nonoil industries are harder to pay for. Boutique banks in Europe and Asia have filled some of the vacuum, at hefty costs, although U.S. officials suggest the global economic crisis may scare them away from Iran, too.

Levey’s campaign has coincided with Iran’s own crisis. In his 2005 presidential campaign, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowed to put Iran’s oil wealth on every dinner table. But his populist policies have flopped. Calling interest rates “the root cause of injustice,” Ahmadinejad twice ordered banks to lower them, first to 12 percent and then to 10 percent — while inflation has gone as high as 30 percent. The dollar, worth 70 rials at the revolution, is today worth 9,600. Iranians gripe that produce prices have tripled over the past two years while housing prices have doubled.

Ahmadinejad has faced unusual public criticism from senior clerics, former chief nuclear negotiators, former speakers of Parliament and several economists. The finance minister who called Levey a Zionist deputy chastised his own leadership in the same speech for having “no plan for the future.” The president retorted that Iran needed a “culture of martyrdom” to solve its economic problems. He has fired six cabinet ministers with economic portfolios and two Central Bank governors. Since June, his government has temporarily banned two newspapers for publishing articles “harmful to the economy.” And last month, Iran’s bazaaris shuttered their shops to protest against new tariffs, forcing the regime to back down.

For the first time in 30 years, U.S. officials contend, Washington has found a tangible way to pressure Iran. Whatever happens with the Bush administration’s diplomatic or intelligence efforts, this is the program most likely to be continued by the next administration because it has bipartisan support.

And Levey is continuing to pick new battlefronts. In September, the Treasury Department sanctioned Iran’s national shipping company and affiliates in 10 countries for falsifying documents and for transporting cargo on behalf of entities tied to weapons of mass destruction by the United Nations. Treasury officials say the insurance industry is next. “This is one of the most powerful actions that can be taken, short of military action,” Paulson told me. “It’s not a knockout punch, but it is effective.”

It’s no coincidence that Levey has visited Dubai eight times, or that President Bush and Vice President Cheney have both stopped there over the past 18 months, or that Bush hosted Dubai’s emir, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, at Camp David this summer. The ultimate success of Levey’s scheme — and the precedent it could set — depend heavily on Dubai.
In its quest to be a global financial center, Dubai has pledged to honor U.N. sanctions. It’s trying to shed the image of a way station for arms merchants and extremists. A. Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, ran a black market through Dubai, funneling sensitive technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya. Dubai was a money-transfer center for Al Qaeda, and 11 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers traveled via Dubai.

Despite the strong Iranian presence in Dubai, new restrictions are taking a toll. Of the 48 international, local and family banks in Dubai, all but a handful have cut off new business with Iranian banks cited in U.N. resolutions, said Hamad Buamim, director general of the Dubai Chamber of Commerce. Potential risks are too high. “It’s psychological,” he told me. The emirates have also set up a joint task force with the United States to sift through Iranian-run businesses in Dubai to uncover front companies for Iranian military, government or business entities sanctioned in U.N. resolutions, officials said. At least 30 have been shut down and dozens put on a watch list.

Visas and work permits for Iranians have dried up. “Registering a new company with an Iranian partnership is almost impossible,” said Hashempour, the Iranian Business Council vice president. When Iranian-run companies import goods, the wait in customs has gone from hours to days, even weeks. Passengers on hundreds of weekly flights between Iran and Dubai go through Terminal 2, where iris scans are taken — a practice not used at Terminal 1 for flights from Europe and the United States. Iran formally complained recently that its citizens were being mistreated, “obstructed” and detained in Dubai.

The emirates do not, however, want to be the pioneer in a new “sanctions of the willing,” I was often told. They have not adopted Washington’s blacklist. Several officials expressed frustration with American strong-arming. “Sometimes, yes, we feel that the United States is asking too much,” said Sultan bin Nasser al-Suwaidi, governor of the Central Bank. “They want results to happen immediately, yesterday instead of today or tomorrow. They are demanding. This is what I said to Stuart Levey: ‘You shouldn’t expect it can produce miracles in a short time.’ ”
The Achilles’ heel of U.S. strategy, of course, is oil. It has provided Iran with a huge cushion to absorb financial shocks. Iran’s budget is pegged to a per-barrel oil price of about $60 (though actual spending is somewhat higher), at a time when oil has gone as high as $147. Gary Hufbauer, co-author of “Economic Sanctions Reconsidered” and a fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told me that banking sanctions are effective, but the odds are still against current sanctions convincing Tehran to change its behavior or cooperate on its nuclear program. The Peterson report concluded: “It is hard to bully a bully with economic measures,” especially against “large targets that are strong, stable, hostile and autocratic.”

It is also possible that the Levey strategy could backfire. Iranians carp at their government over the economy, but such is the Iranian way. “If the Prophet Muhammad were to govern Iran, people would be critical,” said an Iranian businessman who commutes to Dubai. “We are a very demanding people.” The clampdown is uniting many disaffected Iranians around their government, just as they rallied when Saddam Hussein invaded in 1980, said Hashempour. Small-businesses owners have been hit hardest. Meanwhile the state, the Revolutionary Guard’s growing business empire and quasi-government foundations dominate up to 80 percent of business in Iran and are most able to weather the financial storm.

“Yes, they can stop a guy in the Spice Market from getting a letter of credit,” said an Iranian-American investment banker in Dubai who met with Levey. “That’s not fomenting opposition. The guys who are hurting are in the business community. Yes, they hate Ahmadinejad, but they hated him from the beginning. The basic flaw is [the idea] that people who are unhappy with the government can do anything. If the goal is to stop Iran from developing a nuclear capability, nothing that has happened here will achieve that objective.”

Tradition also provides alternatives for those pressed by the lack of access to international credit. Hawala, Arabic for “transfer,” is an informal version of Western Union dating back to the eighth century; it was used initially to avoid bandits. The system is based on trust. To get money to a relative in another city or country, one person gives money to a local hawala. For a small fee, he gets a code word or password to give the relative. The hawala then contacts a trusted friend or agent in the other city. The relative picks up the money upon providing the correct code word. At year’s end, hawalas settle their own accounts. Hawalas are making a big comeback among traders doing business with Iran.

On two scorched mornings in August, I wandered Dubai Creek to talk to dhow crews and check their cargo to Iran. I was on the creek in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, when the world was trying to squeeze Iran into a cease-fire. Dhows then carried vast amounts of American goods. Many still do, but the biggest share of cargo now is Chinese. Economists and dhow captains told me Iranian trade is increasingly looking East.

Dhows thrive off sanctions. But the sun-wizened seafarers thought Washington was making a political mistake. “I may look dirty, but I watch TV and read,” said an engineer on the Ramseh Shams. He was a burly man with disheveled hair, a sweat-stained T-shirt and shorts with an image of Bozo the Clown on them. “The Yankees don’t know who we are,” he declared, as crewmates listened. “Ahmadinejad is not Iran. We are people who love our country even if we’re against our government. It’s the soil we love. Ahmadinejad will be gone in four years. We will not. The United States has lost its sanity in the Middle East. The bully who strong-arms in this region does not last.”

Levey’s campaign may have had a broader punitive impact than any other action against Iran. But sanctions take time. International sanctions on the illegal white-minority government in Rhodesia took 15 years to really bite; and only when South Africa cut Rhodesia off, in its own political self-interest, did the regime begin to collapse.
There is probably not that much time in the case of Iran. The clock on Iran’s nuclear program is ticking faster. Rival projections suggest Tehran might be able to develop a nuclear capacity between 2010 and 2015. The clock on sanctions is moving much more slowly. Levey acknowledged huge hurdles. “But sitting in my place, we have an obligation to use every tool available to us to solve this problem peacefully, and that’s what we’re doing,” he told me.
A senior U.S. official acknowledged as much. “This is not a two- or three- or four-year plan,” he said. “If people are realistic, it’s a 10- or 15-year plan. Of all available options, it seems to me the most sensible thing to do. In the meantime you try to do other things and just hope you can head them off at the pass.”

The ultimate glitch in Levey’s campaign, however, may be that the hard-liners now in power flourish under siege. “I call them weeds who grow in the dark because they thrive in isolation,” reflected Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “You want to send a signal to the Iranians that belligerence only isolates them and reaps no rewards. But they’re like Fidel Castro; they don’t want a U.S. presence or to open up to the world. It would open up the floodgates against them.”

Because Stuart Levey’s war may result in only limited victories, a growing array of voices — from a former general in the U.S. military’s Central Command to former Bush administration staff members — is calling on the next president to reach out to Iran in direct dialogue. Some support the so-called “grand bargain”: negotiating over all diplomatic, economic and security issues and eventually re-establishing U.S.-Iran ties. A robust rapprochement with Iran still seems unlikely any time soon. But to advance American interests in the region, the next president will have to think more imaginatively than the five presidents whose policies have fallen short for three decades.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Why I Have New Hope for The Mideast

March 2, 2008

By Robin Wright

In 2006, three years after the Iraq invasion, I got so tired of the divisive debate in Washington about the future of the Middle East that I went back to the region I've covered since 1973 and listened instead to the people who live there. After traveling for the better part of a year from Rabat to Tehran, I came away surprisingly buoyed.

Oh sure, the Middle East is more volatile than it was at the beginning of the Bush administration: The Arab-Israeli peace process isn't going anywhere. Iraq remains mired in ethnic tensions, religious rivalries and Islamic extremism -- and still has only limited electricity. Iran is angrily defiant toward the United Nations over its nuclear program. Lebanon teeters again.

Yet in the early 21st century, a budding culture of change is creatively challenging the status quo -- and the extremists. New public voices, daring publications and noisy protests across two dozen countries are giving shape to a vigorous, if disjointed, search for alternatives to the autocratic regimes and imperious monarchies that have proved they're out of sync with their people. Dissident judges in Cairo, rebel clerics in Tehran, satellite television station owners in Dubai, the first female parliamentary candidates in Kuwait, young techies in Jeddah, intrepid journalists in Beirut, and bold businessmen in Damascus are carving out new space for political action.

It's a hard slog for them all. Obstinate governments are ruthlessly repressing them; extremists are targeting them. Together, those forces cut short the Arab Spring three years ago, when millions of Iraqis voted in free elections, Lebanese protesters ended Syria's 29-year occupation and democracy movements such as Egypt's "Enough" challenged autocrats across the region. The Bush administration's bungling and backtracking on democracy hasn't helped much, either.
But societies have not gone back to square one. The issue in the Middle East is no longer whether to seek political change. It's how to make it happen.

"In the Arab world, the status quo is not sustainable," reflected Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister. "What worked 40 years ago -- when the state could decide things and expect people to follow -- does not work now. Unless the state is responsive and aware, it is in for major trouble."

That, I found, is only one of many lessons of the new Middle East.

* * *

Two decades ago when I roamed the region, I sought out clandestine cells as the barometer of opposition. Now I look for computer nerds -- the pajamahedeen, or pajama warriors, who wield computers instead of roadside bombs. They personify Lesson 1 in the changing Middle East: The opposition is more open, ambitious, imaginative and stubborn than ever. And the YouTube generation has become a whole new political class.

"Governments have a new kind of opponent," reflected 33-year-old Egyptian Wael Abbas. His blog has posted cellphone videos of police brutality -- including one of a detainee writhing in pain as police sodomized him with a broomstick -- to hold President Hosni Mubarak's government accountable for abuse. Started in 2004, Abbas's blog was garnering up to 30,000 hits a day, jumping to 45,000 daily during a crisis, by 2007.

"We are not bound by government rules, like political parties. We can use the language of freedom," he told me. "We offer an alternative voice, especially for the young." Abbas and his brethren in Iran, Lebanon, Morocco and elsewhere are forcing governments to respond to their complaints, even as they try to silence them. In Egypt, two police officers were prosecuted for abusing the detainee with the broomstick.

* * *

In countries long ruled by a single party or single family, I picked up Lesson 2: There is no longer a single truth, in either ideology or religion, and challenges to the status quo are coming from unlikely quarters.

Hadi Khamenei, a Shiite cleric, campaigned across Iran and in his newspaper against the idea of a supreme leader who has veto power over legislation, presidential decrees and judicial decisions and who can even run for office. "The most important thing we're looking for today in Iran is the rule of law," he told me. "And that means no one, whatever his position, is above it."

Because of his activism, Khamenei has been barred from running for office, his paper has been banned, and he was hospitalized after being attacked by religious vigilantes. "Unfortunately for the rest of us," he said, "there are still people at the top who don't accept that basic right."
Khamenei should know. His older brother just happens to be Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

* * *

In countries where pro-Western activists were once the most outspoken, I found Lesson 3: Old Cold War enemies have become unexpected allies -- and the pluckiest agitators for change.

Decades ago, when the Middle East was a battlefield between U.S. and Soviet interests, the West encouraged Islamic movements to foil Moscow's influence. But with Islamic parties on the rise, the ultimate irony is that many of the secular activists now taking the biggest risks, organizing the boldest protests and penning the most scathing criticisms are reformed Marxists.

Riad al-Turk is the Nelson Mandela of Syria. He was locked in a windowless underground cell about the length of his body without furniture or a toilet for 18 years. He kept from going mad by using uncooked grains of rice from his evening soup to etch geometric designs on the floor. "You must accept hell as a price to pay for remaining faithful to your convictions," he later reflected.

After his release in 1998, Turk went at it again, lashing out at the Assad dynasty in Damascus for "relying on terror" and demanding that it move "from despotism to democracy." In 2001, he was arrested a fourth time. Freed in 2005 at age 75, the reformed Marxist refused to be silent, even while acknowledging that he was only a starting point.

"The regime will eventually collapse on its own, due to isolation internally and internationally," he told me. "That's what happened in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. That's what will happen here."

* * *

To understand political trends, I once turned to intellectuals and elites. Now I look to ordinary people galvanized out of apathy to fight for change. Lesson 4: Watch out for the soccer moms.

That's how I'd describe Ghada Shahbender in Egypt. A middle-aged mother of four athletic teenagers who was in the throes of a divorce, Shahbender had never joined a party or voted -- until May 2005, when she became infuriated by televised pictures of police watching as thugs beat women, old and young, on referendum day. A week later, she went to her first protest.

"An elderly woman turned to me and said she thought I was new and did I have 100 [Egyptian] pounds," Shahbender recalled. " 'Why 100 pounds?' I asked. She told me, 'That's what you need for bail.' "

Shahbender didn't flinch. With friends, she formed We're Watching You to monitor elections for president and parliament in 2005. The group chronicled more than 1,000 violations, complete with video of police firing tear gas and live ammunition at voters. With international observers barred, We're Watching You became the leading source for the media and foreign governments on the fraud in the contests, which were won, again, by Mubarak and his ruling party.

Shahbender has since been invited to monitor elections elsewhere in the region, has sued the government for not complying with an international treaty on corruption, and has started Kid-mocracy, a competition to help teenagers learn about constitutions. Last year she brought the winners to Washington.

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While it's conventional wisdom to view political Islam as part of the problem in the Middle East, it may actually be part of the solution. Lesson 5: Pay attention to the moderate Islamists; many are seeking compromise.

Saadeddine Othmani, a psychiatrist-turned-politician, heads Morocco's Justice and Development Party, a movement he compares to Europe's Christian Democrats. Since it began competing in parliamentary elections in 1997, the party has adopted the earthly challenges of poverty, corruption and constitutional reform as its prime causes. There's no talk of imposing sharia, or Islamic law, or of overthrowing the government. Indeed, the only picture in its Rabat headquarters is of King Mohammed VI.

"Islam has no fixed form of governance. Instead this has been left for human creativity. . . . The people's will is the decisive factor," Othmani told me. "Our approach is to have gradual progress and avoid haste and shortcuts, which is the major mistake committed by many leftists, nationalists and Islamist movements." In elections last fall, amid a field of 33 parties, the Justice and Development Party officially became Morocco's second most popular party.

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Not all of the Middle East's new actors will succeed. For all the signs of promise, the region is still full of shadows.

Democracy is about differences, which are bound to explode once disparate sides of society are free to speak and make demands. Opening new space also does not guarantee who or what will fill it. And all the factors contributing to change make the region susceptible to greater turmoil.

Yet what I found most inspiring in my travels was not the dreams that the outside world has for the people of the Middle East. It was the lofty goals they have set for themselves, and begun -- only begun -- to act on.