Sunday, June 29, 2014

The New York Times

Iraq, In the Shadow of Lebanon
Iraq is now peering into the abyss that Lebanon witnessed during the darkest days of its civil war, the first and longest sectarian conflict in the post-colonial Arab world. The conflict dragged on for 15 deadly years. The human costs, in a country smaller than Connecticut, were staggering: 150,000 killed and a million people — one-fourth of the population — displaced. The economy collapsed and destruction totaled $25 billion. Along the way, Lebanon’s militias introduced tactics, most notably the suicide bomb, that have defined asymmetric warfare worldwide ever since.
Over those years, from 1975 to 1990, the entire Middle East shook, as Lebanon’s war ignited a rippling series of other conflicts, big and small, including an Israeli invasion in 1982 that turned into its own messy 18-year occupation. I lived through five years of Lebanon’s multifaceted war. I spent plenty of time in basements-cum-bomb-shelters, waiting for incoming artillery or thunderous battles on the streets above to stop, debating with Lebanese about whether their little country could endure the venom consuming its 18 recognized Muslim, Christian, Druse and other sects.
The civil war ended in 1990. The state barely survived. And nearly a quarter century later, the war’s effects linger on, in political form, as Lebanon struggles to find a president amid sectarian turmoil. Hezbollah, a Shiite militia born during the war that later organized as a political party as well, is now powerful enough to say yea or nay to a president. Lebanon still offers many lessons for the region.
Unfortunately, the scope of events over the past three weeks in Iraq, born of the same kinds of power-sharing disputes that ripped Lebanon apart, is bigger physically, politically, economically, militarily and regionally. Just for starters, Iraq is the size of California. The territory seized with astonishing speed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is the size of Indiana.
Over all, Iraq is a geostrategic property of far greater value, not to mention the second-largest oil producer in OPEC. The weaponry on all sides is bigger and badder than in Lebanon. The hatreds may actually be deeper, the regional impact wider. The consequences — intended and unintended — could well have global import.
The two countries have their own dynamics and flash points. But Iraq is more like Lebanon than Syria, where ISIS began its territorial sweep, because both Iraq and Lebanon are nascent democracies. The principle of power sharing is publicly embraced and politically enshrined, even if not adequately practiced. In contrast, Syria’s three-year-old war has become intractable because President Bashar al-Assad clings to authoritarian power.
The fractured communities in Lebanon and Iraq have been charting a course, albeit fitfully and bloodily, into a future quite different from the region’s past. It’s the struggle to move beyond primordial identities of clan, tribe, race and sect in the name of a wider national good. It’s a challenge every democracy faces, including the United States in its own past Civil War and its current internal politicking. It’s hard to get beyond self.
Finding a new political formula that is equitable and just is the fundamental challenge across the Middle East, as activists and the huge population of young people demand a fairer share of power. This is the last bloc of countries to hold out against the democratic tide that has ended odious ideologies like apartheid and Communism over the past half century elsewhere. The stakes for the Middle East are historic.
Iraqis from all sects and ethnicities will be stupidly self-destructive if they don’t come to terms with one another quickly. They still have a chance to reverse course, reallocate power and repair political rifts in a way that Syria almost certainly cannot if Mr. Assad stays in power. They also have international interest in helping make it happen, as controversial as any form of outside diplomatic or military assistance may be.
The alternative is the Lebanon situation, in which politics was hijacked by warlords, security forces were marginalized by law-defying militias, the economy survived off smuggling, and daily life was Darwinian. I once had to clean bits of body and car parts off my little balcony when a suicide bomber set himself off prematurely — one of many bizarre memories of life in Beirut. Fighting was never predictable. I had a chart on my wall of the constantly proliferating militias — four dozen or so by the time I left in 1985 — and their constantly shifting alliances and enmities. Allies one day could be trying to kill one another the next, even within sects, over issues that had digressed far from their common cause. It was not unusual to see Shiites fighting Shiites, Christians fighting Christians, and Sunnis fighting Sunnis. Iraq is already witnessing its own internecine clashes.
The lessons of Lebanon apply to the United States as well. For all its wars elsewhere, one of the largest losses of American military life in a single incident since World War II was the loss of 241 peacekeepers in Beirut in 1983 — after Washington was seen to take sides in Lebanon’s civil war.
As Lebanon proved, the ultimate solution is political — and the solutions are often simple to the point of banality. Lebanon’s war finally ended with only minor changes to the internal balance of power. The original formula at independence from France in 1943 — in an unwritten agreement, based on a dubious 1932 census — allocated six seats in the Parliament to Christians for every five seats given to Muslims. Under the peace accord in 1990, the ratio became parity. The presidency, reserved for a Christian, was weakened and the prime ministership, reserved for a Sunni, was strengthened. Shiites retained the post of parliamentary speaker. None of the positions were given to another sect.

So little, for so many dead. Iraq beware.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Wall Street Journal

Libya's Make-or-Break Point
By Robin Wright 
I’m not convinced anyone will read this blogpost–Libya is that forgotten.
Yet the North African nation is at a make-or-break point. With its oil riches and small population, Libya is the only Arab country in transition that can afford to reconstruct politically and physically from the turmoil of 2011, when an eight-month uprising ousted longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Instead, Libya is facing implosion. The tragedy of a nation was illustrated Wednesday in twin events: the assassination of a dedicated human rights activist and the apathetic election for a new government.
Salwa Bugaighis was a major player in creating a new Libya. A lawyer and a feisty woman of imaginative courage, she had dared to campaign against Gadhafi’s autocratic rule. During the uprising, she was a member of the National Transitional Council formed by dissidents in Benghazi, the epicenter of the revolt. After Gadhafi’s demise, she became deputy head of the national dialogue panel tasked with facilitating reconciliation among Libya’s rival clans, tribes and militias.
Over the past two years, she again dared to speak out, this time against Islamic militants. She was a friend of Chris Stevens, the slain U.S. ambassador, and after his murder in September 2012 she carried a wreath with his picture and a personal note as people in Benghazi gathered to protest his death. But she paid for her bravery.
On Wednesday, masked gunmen broke into her Benghazi home and opened fire, killing her. Her husband is missing, presumed kidnapped. National security adviser Susan Rice, who met with Ms. Bugaighis shortly after Gadhafi’s ouster, said in a statement Thursday: “I was deeply impressed by her courage, leadership and dedication to building a peaceful, democratic Libya where the rights and freedoms of all Libyan women and men are respected and protected.”
Ms. Bugaighis was shot just hours after voting in Libya’s election for a new 200-seat parliament. She was sufficiently proud that she posted pictures of herself on Facebook.  The United Nations called the election a critical step in Libya’s increasingly bloody transition to democracy.
But most of Libya’s eligible voters opted not to cast ballots. Only about half as many registered to vote than did for Libya’s first democratic election, in 2012; about 630,000 reportedly went to the polls Wednesday. Many Libyans, riven by regional disputes and threatened by militias, appear too disillusioned or too frightened to vote.
Meanwhile, the outside world doesn’t appear all that interested in helping them either.
Robin Wright is a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She is on Twitter: @wrightr.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Wall Street Journal

The Injustice in Egypt’s Courts
Egypt is, again, a dictatorship, proven by gross injustice and absurdly counterproductive behavior in the year since its latest military coup. Just weeks after sentencing some 1,200 people to death in mass trials, the judiciary has sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to seven years in prison, allegedly for supporting terrorism and aiding the Muslim Brotherhood by interviewing its members. Evidence in the trial was flimsy to the point of laughable. The sentences were tragically ridiculous. One journalist received an additional three years for being in possession of a single spent bullet. As Amnesty International noted, journalism is not a crime.
The judicial decision was a defiant snub of the United States and a slap in the face to Secretary of State John Kerry just a day after he met with Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, in Cairo and promised that the flow of U.S. military equipment would resume. Some of the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid and equipment has been frozen since shortly after then-Gen. Sisi led a coup last July against the democratically elected government of Mohammed Morsi.
Secretary Kerry was so angered by the announcement that, even in the midst of emergency diplomacy on Iraq, he called Egypt’s foreign minister to complain. In Baghdad on Monday, Mr. Kerry said at a press conference that Egypt’s move was “chilling” and “draconian.”
The White House later called on President Sisi to commute the journalists’ sentences or pardon the three—Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed—so they can be immediately released. It also called for clemency for “all politically motivated sentences,” an indirect reference to the widespread detention of critics and rights activists. National security adviser Susan Rice tweeted on Tuesday “Appalled by senseless verdicts against Al Jazeera English journalists in Egypt.” She added the hashtag being used worldwide by those pushing for the journalists’ release, #FreeAJStaff. Ms. Rice rarely uses social media, especially to publicly criticize a foreign government. The governments of Australia and Canada have also condemned the sentences.
Mr. Sisi would be wise to let the journalists go. But even if he frees those three, hundreds remain in detention and other trials await. Ultimately, Egypt’s conduct will be costly. It may be the most populous Arab country and the most strategic in North Africa. But Cairo needs credibility to deal with staggering economic problems, which will require foreign income from tourism and investment.
Showing utter disregard for basic rights is no way for Cairo to prove its claim of transitioning back to democratic rule—or convincing the outside world that Egypt is a safe place to travel or to invest.
Robin Wright is a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She is on Twitter: @wrightr.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The New Yorker

On Friday, a new report by the International Crisis Group, an independent research and policy institute, bluntly warned of both the political and military challenges in Iraq. Under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the report declared, “Parliament has been rendered toothless, independent state agencies shorn of their powers. Ministries, to an unprecedented extent, have become bastions of nepotism and other forms of corruption; the severely politicized judiciary represents anything but the ‘rule of law,’ with even the Supreme Court doing the government’s bidding.”
This week, as the jihadi juggernaut solidifies its control over almost a third of the country in a Sunni proto-state, a token American team of Special Forces will embed in Iraq to assess and advise Iraq’s disintegrating military. Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry is conferring with regional leaders about ways to prevent a geostrategic prize from imploding into a failed state. He, too, is expected in Baghdad.
The primary American mission is to help rebuild the house of cards that is the Iraqi government—a political challenge almost as daunting as devising a strategy to beat back the alienated Sunni forces in the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The goal is to prevent Iraq from becoming another Lebanon, where sectarian tensions over a power-sharing formula dragged on in a fifteen-year civil war, despite repeated American diplomatic interventions and attempts to rebuild the national army.
Iraq’s parliamentary elections, which were held at the end of April, may open the way to getting rid of Maliki and reconfiguring power in a new national-unity government. But the country’s squabbling politicians are obstinate. After the previous elections, in 2010, the parliament broke a world record for the longest time taken to form a new government, bickering for a full nine months until Maliki, whose alliance had come in second in popular votes, and his thirty-four-member cabinet were approved. Maliki prevailed by simply holding out longer than the others; the same intransigence has characterized his style of governance ever since.
In 2010, Baghdad had the luxury of time. Iraq was secured by more than eighty thousand American troops, and a joint mission, with Sunni tribal leaders in the “Sons of Iraq” militia, had decisively beaten back an Al Qaeda insurgency. Now there will only be the advisers—no more than three hundred in all, according to President Obama—and many of the Sons of Iraq, who felt betrayed by the Maliki’s Shiite favoritism, have turned their guns on Baghdad’s rule.
The momentum, both in Iraq and abroad, is increasingly against Maliki remaining in office. Iraqis tell me that even among Shiite politicians and clerics the new political cry is “A.B.M.”—”Anybody but Maliki.” Maliki, for his part, is digging in. He describes himself to Shiite brethren as a defender of the faith and warns that his ouster would be a victory for ISIS. He’s essentially copying Bashar Assad’s strategy for holding on to power in Syria. “Many of us thought Assad would not survive, yet he is still in Damascus,” a former Iraqi official told me. “Many of those early calculations were wrong. The same thing could happen here”—and in ways that could further fracture the country, he said.
Kerry is carrying a crisp message. Obama told CNN on June 20th, “There’s no amount of American firepower that’s going to be able to hold the country together, and I’ve made that very clear to Mr. Maliki and all the other leadership inside Iraq.” The President emphasized that “the terms in which we send any advisers” would be dependent on “a commitment to a unified and inclusive Iraqi government and armed forces”—by which he meant an arrangement that includes Kurds and Sunnis as well as Shiites.
Maliki’s role is not the only leadership issue; the Presidency is also up for grabs. President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, suffered a stroke eighteen months ago and has been hospitalized in Germany. Known as Mam Jalal, or Uncle Jalal, he is a keen negotiator, and his credibility and skills have been missed in Baghdad. The question to be sorted out is not just who will replace him but whether the next President will also be a Kurd. The Presidency has been one of the political incentives keeping the Kurds in the coalition. Giving the post to the Sunnis, in the hope of retaining their support, could cost Iraq Kurdistan.
Yet only with a new government can Iraq face its existential problem—how to preserve the country. Iraqis tell me that Baghdad may have to dismantle the current state to save it—that is, massively transfer power to the provinces: everything from security to schools, bureaucracy, and budgets. The result might be a kind of soft partition, with Baghdad in control of foreign policy and the national treasury but little else.
The Kurds, part of the world’s largest stateless minority, have been heading in that direction since 1991, when Saddam Hussein started to punish them by means of isolation and sanctions. The Kurds learned how to survive on their own. The ISIS onslaught has offered a new pretext, as the Kurdistan regional government deployed Peshmerga militia along its border. The Peshmerga also took control of Kirkuk, the oil center long disputed with Iraq’s Arabs, after the national army (largely Arabs) fled.
The government will have an even harder time bringing minority Sunnis, who ruled Iraq before the American invasion, back on board. One of the first acts under the American occupation, a decade ago, was the outlawing of the ruling Baath Party and the dismantling of the Army. Roughly one-sixth of Iraq’s population, including thousands of teachers, belonged to the Party, and many of them lost their jobs. It may be necessary to re-Baath-ify Iraq, allowing former members of the Party to participate in a new power-sharing formula and the old Army to be part of a reconstituted military.
“I prefer to call it reconciliation,” the former senior Iraqi official told me. “They can’t be prosecuted forever. The way to defeat ISIS is to empower moderate Sunnis. We can all help, but it has to be done by indigenous communities within the Sunni region.”
For the United States, these political challenges are formidable—and perhaps insuperable—but there’s no real alternative. Washington should beware “quick fixes,” the new International Crisis Group report cautions. “The U.S. can achieve little through air strikes, the insertion of special forces or other light-footprint tactics without, in its counter-insurgency jargon, an effective Iraqi army to ‘clear’; an accepted Iraqi police to ‘hold’; and a legitimate Iraqi political leadership to ‘build.’ ”

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The New Yorker

A Third Iraq War? 

The United States now faces the possibility of its third intervention in Iraq. On paper, the two earlier wars quickly achieved their military goals. In 1991, a muscular alliance of thirty-four nations, led by the United States, forced Iraq to withdraw from the tiny city-state of Kuwait in a mere six weeks. In 2003, President Saddam Hussein, after twenty-four years in power, fled Baghdad just three weeks after a token “coalition of the willing” invaded. Yet both wars were ultimately political failures, and the new challenge in Iraq may prove to be even deadlier, with sweeping regional repercussions. Given its deepening sectarian and ethnic divisions—and the absence of a cohesive or effective military—the modern Iraqi state may not hold. Neighboring Syria is already shattered, and the Middle East map—defined by European powers a century ago—may be redrawn, either de facto or formally. Globally, the jihadist threat has never been greater.
The Obama Administration is debating options to salvage Iraq. In the first Iraq war—the Gulf War—the George H. W. Bush Administration deployed more than half a million troops; allies provided another two hundred thousand. Together, they easily overwhelmed the Iraqi military. Oil-rich Gulf states, along with Japan and Germany, picked up much of the tab—roughly sixty billion dollars.
At the height of the second Iraq war, the George W. Bush Administration sent more than a hundred and seventy thousand troops; a few other nations provided an additional eleven thousand. Washington paid its own bills—estimated at $1.7 trillion, plus almost five hundred billion dollars in benefits due to war veterans.
Neither approach would be feasible for a third Iraq war. Washington doesn’t have the same enthusiasm, or the will. The military may be capable, but it is fatigued. As the United States emerges from the Great Recession, its resources are limited; abundant foreign funding is unlikely. Public opinion is wary. The scope of the mission could expand out of control. Iraq might not be rescuable without the U.S. dealing with Syria, since the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has already erased part of the border between the two countries. If ISIS zealots were defeated in Iraq, they could simply retreat to their Syrian bases and come back another day. In addition, Iraq’s regional conflict has become deeply sectarian. The threat to the United States is barbaric jihadism, as both an ideology and a tactic, but for many in Iraq, and in neighboring countries, the dispute is quickly evolving into a fratricidal rivalry between Shiites and Sunnis. This time around, American intervention could get entangled with a fourteen-century-old schism between Islamic sects.
U.S. strategy will need to be more sophisticated. In Washington, drone strikes are the military option du jour, but they probably would not make enough of a difference, in this kind of war, to be decisive. A decade of drone warfare in Pakistan and Yemen has eliminated fanatics but not fanaticism. The core question is whether any military options can provide an enduring solution. In 2006, Iraq faced a microcosm of today’s broader threat: a Sunni insurgency, led by an Al Qaeda offshoot, threatened the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. The dangers of Iraq’s disintegration were so serious that then Senator Joseph Biden co-authored an op-ed in the Times with Leslie Gelb, of the Council on Foreign Relations, suggesting that Iraq should be divvied up into three autonomous zones, based on distinct Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish communities. A breakup is “already underway,” Biden and Gelb wrote. They went on:
The Sunnis, who until recently believed they would retake power in Iraq, are beginning to recognize that they won’t and don’t want to live in a Shiite-controlled, highly centralized state with laws enforced by sectarian militias. The Shiites know they can dominate the government, but they can’t defeat a Sunni insurrection. The Kurds will not give up their 15-year-old autonomy.

The Bush Administration instead opted for a military surge of thirty thousand troops—over unanimous challenges by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The generals and admirals were confident that their forces could beat back insurgents, but they feared that their diplomatic counterparts could not broker a formula for political power-sharing among rival sects and ethnicities. They warned the White House that a temporary mission, measured in months, might even give an edge down the road to Iraq’s many armed factions—including Al Qaeda’s foreign fighters, Sunni insurgents, and Shiite militias.
The Joint Chiefs were right. The military achieved its goal, with a lot of local help in the same areas that ISIS has swept over in the past two weeks. But a political solution has remained elusive. In the intervening eight years, divisions have only deepened under the rule of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has been acting on behalf of the long-oppressed Shiite majority, forcing Sunnis into the arms of extremists. And, as the Iraqi Army implodes, those armed factions are now taking control.
Any plan for stability—whether Iraq remains a single state or breaks into three—has to begin with the underlying political problem. Last week, President Obama called for a multiethnic governing council in Baghdad but, with insurgents less than fifty miles from the capital, that option is now too little, too late.
Iraqis must become invested in their own political order and risk putting their lives on the line to secure it. Unfortunately, Maliki may not be willing to either cede the powers required for a just resolution or to step aside. His intransigence has sabotaged Iraqi nationalism—though others share in the blame—and simply propping him up could eventually be costly. On Tuesday, Maliki defied international appeals for political outreach. Instead, he declared a boycott of a Sunni political bloc and put the blame for Iraq’s disintegration on Saudi Arabia. “We hold them responsible for supporting these groups financially and morally, and for the outcome of that—which includes crimes that may qualify as genocide: the spilling of Iraqi blood, the destruction of Iraqi state institutions and historic and religious sites,” his government said in a statement. So Washington will have to be bold and blunt with him—and even consider withdrawing support. Leaving the political work undone a third time around only risks yet another failure—and who knows how many more.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The New Yorker

U.S. and Iran:The Enemy of My Enemy...
On Monday, Iran and the United States, along with envoys from Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia, will meet again in Vienna to work on specific terms for a nuclear agreement. The talks resume just as Washington and Tehran suddenly find that they have common cause in preventing Iraq’s abrupt disintegration. For both, their longtime strategies toward Iraq appear to be failing, as a few thousand thugs in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) burn their way across the country.
Washington and Tehran have started using the same language. President Obama, in his remarks on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday, said, “Nobody has an interest in seeing terrorists gain a foothold inside of Iraq, and nobody is going to benefit from seeing Iraq descend into chaos.” An hour later, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, told me, by telephone, from Tehran, “It is in the interest of everybody to stabilize the government of Iraq. If the U.S. has come to realize that these groups pose a threat to the security of the region, and if the U.S. truly wants to fight terrorism and extremism, then it’s a common global cause.”
Obama said that Washington is “going to pursue diplomacy” across the region. Zarif told me that he’d been working the phones with Iraq’s neighbors for the past two days. Obama warned of the dangers of the Sunni extremists trying to “overrun sacred Shia sites.” Iran is the world’s largest Shiite country, and its interests in Iraq are focussed on protecting the Shiite plurality that was long dominated by a Sunni minority.
Twitter pundits are already speculating about the potential for de facto coöperation between the countries. Among the scenarios: U.S. drones striking ISIS targets and, in effect, providing air cover for Iranian Revolutionary Guards dispatched to help hold back the ISIS jihadis, who have been pushing toward Baghdad. In our conversation, Zarif denied reports that Tehran has already dispatched battalions of Revolutionary Guards to aid and protect Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government, but its élite Quds Force has long had a presence—in various forms—inside Iraq.
Iran was America’s nemesis throughout the eight-year American war in Iraq. American officials regularly berated the Iranians for providing arms (including I.E.D.s) and strategic guidance to Iraqi militias. “They are responsible for providing the weapons, the training, the funding and, in some cases, the direction for operations that have indeed killed U.S. soldiers,” General David Petraeus told reporters in 2007.
Some forty-four hundred Americans died in Iraq. In 2010, James Jeffrey, the U.S. Ambassador there, estimated that Iran was linked, through its surrogates, to the deaths of more than a thousand American troops. “My own estimate, based just upon a gut feeling, is that up to a quarter of the American casualties and some of the more horrific incidents in which Americans were kidnapped … can be traced without doubt to these Iranian groups,” he said.
Even after Washington announced its intent to leave Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert Gates charged that Iran’s support for Shiite militias was intent on “killing as many as possible in order to demonstrate to the Iraqi people that, in effect, they drove us out of Iraq at the end of the year.”
When the United States ended its combat mission, in 2011, it did not leave even a residual force behind, because Iraq—under Iran’s strong influence—refused to sign a Status of Forces Agreement granting immunity to U.S. troops for acts deemed criminal under Iraqi law. (In the nineteen-sixties, an identical controversy over giving U.S. troops immunity in Iran led to protests by Ayatollah Khomeini and, eventually, his expulsion by the Shah. From exile, in Iraq, Khomeini waged the campaign that ultimately led to the Shah’s overthrow.)
Today, Tehran, like Washington, seems preoccupied with the rise or return of Sunni militants, from Syria to Afghanistan. “Everybody is threatened by this extremism,” Zarif told me in March. “It has changed the strategic calculations and considerations for everybody who is interested in peace and stability in this region…. I think we all must take cognizance of the fact that this is a threat and work on it together—not against one another.”

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Wall Street Journal

The 10 Dangers in Iraq
The Iraq crisis, alas, how to count the calamitous ways! Here are the top 10:
 1. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has become the most aggressive and ambitious extremist movement in the world. It is also the most deadly and the most accomplished, dwarfing al-Qaeda in influence and impact. And under current conditions, it looks largely unchallenged.
2. An undisciplined militia with a rigid and intolerant ideology walked over a conventional army that the U.S. trained, armed and aided—at a cost of billions of dollars. Large numbers of Iraqi forces simply took off their uniforms, dumped their equipment and fled–leaving hundreds of thousands of civilians without protection. Extremist thugs captured millions of dollars’ worth of military equipment, which will only bolster their onslaught.
3. ISIS terrorizes rather than governs the turf it takes. It has little regard for human life or respect for basic rights. Its system of justice is utter injustice.
4. The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shows no ability to end the crisis politically. Since taking office in 2006, Mr. Maliki has become increasingly authoritarian and repressive. He has repeatedly failed to craft a viable formula for power sharing among disparate ethnic and sectarian groups, which could have eased tensions. Instead, he has antagonized and confronted.
5. The Iraqi people are caught in the middle of all this. Hundreds of thousands have reportedly fled the new areas the ISIS has captured. Many more may follow if ISIScontinues to forge ahead—and remember, the region has already shown itselfunable to absorb or tend to millions of Syrian refugees.
6. Some worry that Iraq’s turmoil could lead to the collapse of the state. For now, such fears may be exaggerated. But Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari conceded to European and Arabian counterparts Wednesday that the ISIS campaign is a “serious, mortal threat.”
7. ISIS could eventually reconfigure the Middle East if it is able to seize and hold significant chunks of Iraq and Syria, the Arab world’s two strategic centerpieces, spanning the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. No extremist movement has conquered so much territory in the region.
8. The danger from ISIS is not just creating failed states out of Iraq and Syria but spawning a failed region.
9. ISIS’s rise comes at a time of staggering region-wide challenges: Egypt is returning to military rule—democratically elected—under former field marshal Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. Still awaiting a new constitution, Libya’s fragile democracy is in perpetual crisis, deepened by disintegrating security, rival and rampant militias, and a renegade general. Even oil-rich Saudi Arabia is troubled, under an aging and ailing king and more than one-third unemployment among the young. The list goes on.

10. The U.S. strategy of both Republican and Democratic administrations has failed to stabilize Iraq or foster a political peace. It’s a tragic commentary after an enormous investment.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The New Yorker

Iran's Dissidents,
Released but not Freed 


In 1998, I visited the offices of Jame’eh (“Society”), the first independent newspaper in revolutionary Iran. Its staff had just published a story about a Revolutionary Guard commander’s secret proposal to behead emerging reformers. In its first three months, Jame’eh also exposed the misadventures of the secretive Ansar-e Hezbollah, or Helpers of the Party of God, and interviewed a former official who was released after being imprisoned for fifteen years, on charges of being an American spy. The paper ran acerbic satires, daring political cartoons, and unconventional news stories. It came out twice a day (three times if there was big news), and kiosks had a hard time keeping it in stock.

Jame’eh has two functions,” Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, its young editor, told me then. “We are trying to build up the level of democratic discourse, and we are a good test case to see how much freedom the government can tolerate.”

Not much, it turns out, even a generation later.

Jame’eh was shut down just months after its launch. Shamsolvaezin quickly opened three other papers, including Asr-e Azadegan (“Age of Free People”). The regime closed them just as quickly. Over the past sixteen years, Shamsolvaezin has been jailed three times, in the infamous Evin Prison, on vague charges of challenging national security and weakening the theocratic system. He was last released in 2010. For his daring, Shamsolvaezin was named the World Press Freedom Hero earlier this year by the International Press Institute.

Today, Shamsolvaezin makes his living as a pistachio farmer outside Tehran. His goatee is graying; his crows’ nests are rutted. “I dream of newspapers,” he told me this spring. Since the election of President Hassan Rouhani, last June, he has tried again to open a newspaper, but on the eve of its first issue it, too, was thwarted. He now carries a toothbrush in his briefcase. He showed it to me. “At least this time, I’m prepared,” he said. “The prison gives us a toothbrush, but it’s not good quality.”

Rouhani’s victory, an upset, spawned great expectations of change. A pragmatic centrist, he campaigned on the promise of “hope and prudence.” After the election, in a series of speeches and tweets, he pledged new freedoms and challenged past practices, including censorship. His quasi-official account tweeted, “Web filtering unable to produce results. Which important piece of news has #filtering been able to black out in recent years.” Rouhani was particularly tough on the country’s state-controlled television, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (I.R.I.B.):

Over the past year, though, Rouhani has conspicuously failed to uphold his promise. “We have freedom of expression in Iran,” Shamsolvaezin told me. “We just don’t have freedom after expression.” In accepting his press award, in April, Shamsolvaezin called for the release of forty-eight other jailed journalists.

Rouhani’s domestic agenda has generally suffered in his first year, while he concentrated on foreign policy—and, almost single-mindedly, on negotiating a nuclear deal with the world’s six major powers. (Talks will resume next week in Vienna.)

In the meantime, Iran maintains a bifurcated legal system that can charge people on vague grounds of un-Islamic behavior or unrevolutionary activities. Rouhani has been unwilling to take on either Iran’s deep state—a mix of security and intelligence agencies with their own political agendas—or the judiciary, over which he has no constitutional control. In addition to civil and criminal courts, Iran has Islamic revolutionary courts. Amnesty International warned last week that “despite President Rouhani’s popular mandate, Iran’s clerically-dominated politico-religious establishment, headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and hardliners within its security and judicial sectors, retain enormous power and influence and, to a large extent, continue to have the determining voice on the nature and pace of change in Iran.” As Shamsolvaezin put it, “The ruling system is the deep state.”

Rouhani’s shortcomings are now drawing the same condemnation once reserved for his hard-line predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Two new Amnesty International reports detail “sustained brutality” against political prisoners in Evin Prison and the systematic repression of students and academics in Iran’s universities.

Internal tensions are reflected in the fate of two former Presidential candidates, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who have languished under house arrest since 2011 for their opposition to Ahmadinejad. Both are true insiders. Mousavi was the Prime Minister throughout the long war with Iraq in the nineteen-eighties; Karroubi was the speaker of parliament for eight years. Their claims of fraud in the 2009 election and their support for the subsequent Green Movement protests, in which millions poured into the streets, eventually led to their detention. Mousavi’s wife, a former university president, is also under house arrest. Three years later, none have been formally charged.

In a report to the United Nations this spring, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon chastised Rouhani and called for their release. “The new Administration has not made any significant improvement in the promotion and protection of freedom of expression and opinion, despite pledges made by the President during his campaign and after his swearing in,” he said. He scolded Tehran for its “large number of political prisoners.” Tehran denies holding any, but the U.N. report counts almost nine hundred prisoners of conscience and political prisoners, including activists, religious minorities, women, online commentators, journalists, and students.

Over the past thirty-five years, Iran has taken tepid and token steps on human-rights abuses. In the nineteen-eighties, the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini warned the judiciary and the Revolutionary Guards against abusing individual rights. He issued an eight-point human-rights code to prevent excesses, and approved trying revolutionary prosecutors and judges who abused power. Before his death, in 1989, he also declared that the state was more important than Islam, stirring controversy among fellow-clerics. But revolutionaries tend to be paranoid, devouring their own as well as their opponents. A former President fled into exile; his foreign minister was executed by firing squad at Evin Prison, for plotting to overthrow the state. Cabinet officials and several members of parliament have been taken to court or jail. In 2009, a former vice-president was imprisoned for his political sins, until he recanted on national television.

For three years, Iran’s most famous political prisoner was a woman named Nasrin Sotoudeh. A petite human-rights lawyer, she tucks her short, feathered hair behind bright scarves, to comply with laws mandating modest Islamic dress. She has two young children. After Iran’s disputed 2009 election, she took on cases of Green Movement activists who had been detained en masse. Then she, too, was arrested, on charges of conspiring against state security and spreading propaganda. Sentenced to eleven years (later reduced to six), she was also disbarred and banned from leaving the country for twenty years.

Sotoudeh remained outspoken from prison. A letter she wrote to her husband, Reza Khandan, was published on Facebook:
My dear Reza, everyone ponders about their freedom while in prison. Although my freedom is also important to me, it is not more important than the justice that has been ignored and denied…. Nothing is more important than those hundreds of years of sentences that were rendered to my clients and other freedom-seeking individuals, accused of crimes they had not committed. Though I had the privilege of representing only a few, I will continue to object to their unjust sentences regardless of whether or not I have a license to practice the law.
She also went on repeated hunger strikes; the longest lasted forty-nine days. In 2011, President Obama filmed a video message to the Iranian people in which he called for her release. In 2012, the European Union awarded her the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

Last September, a month after Rouhani took office and shortly before his début at the United Nations, Sotoudeh was released, abruptly, along with ten other prisoners. She is still disbarred, but she has resumed work on cases of minors facing death sentences.

“I was released, but I was not freed,” she told me when I visited her this spring. She works out of a dimly lit office off a narrow alley in north Tehran. A poster of Nelson Mandela was propped against the window. “When we were released, we thought this trend was going to continue, but it didn’t. For me, this sort of freedom is meaningless when my friends are still in prison.”

One of the prisoners who hasn’t been released is Mohsen Mirdamadi, the former head of parliament’s foreign-affairs committee and of Iran’s largest reform party. Mirdamadi was one of the original three ringleaders in the takeover of the U.S. Embassy, in 1979. (Two generations after the revolution, many early radicals have turned into reformers, and several have been jailed.)

Mirdamadi, a surprisingly small man, has been challenging the system for more than a decade. In 2002, he declared on the floor of parliament that it was time for Iran to repair relations with the United States. “Once enmity with America was in line with our interests,” he said. “Our interests today lie in détente with America.” He also dared to call the government authoritarian. “The goals of the revolution are being forgotten as this government becomes more of a dictatorship,” he told me in 2004. “People still want change.” That year, he was barred from running again for parliament. He then launched a newspaper, Nowruz (“New Year”), which advocated the rule of law. Ultimately, the authorities charged him with libel, subversion, “encouraging hooligans to undermine public order,” and propagating “moral decadence.” The paper was banned. In 2009, after the election protests, he was sentenced to six years at the conclusion of a mass, Stalin-esque trial.

Nasrin Sotoudeh told me that little is likely to change, given Iran’s unique legal system. She believes that the time has come to change, dissolve, or abolish the Islamic courts. “These courts were formed for emergencies after the revolution,” she said. “But thirty-five years have passed, so there is no reason to continue accusing people under urgent or emergency situations.”

A nuclear deal might help ease Iran’s human-rights crisis, she said. “If the country can resolve its international problem through dialogue and conversation, then it can solve its internal problems through dialogue as well.” But the Islamic Republic is still a long way from ending the pervasive climate of fear, even among the revolutionaries themselves.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Wall Street Journal

Iran’s Turning Points

By ROBIN WRIGHT  June 3, 2014
Twenty-five years ago, on June 3, 1989, the Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini died, abruptly, after a decade in power. He left the world’s only theocracy in turmoil, having recently fired his heir apparent and having triggered worldwide condemnation for the death-sentence fatwa he had decreed against author Salman Rushdie for his book “The Satanic Verses.”
But in the year before his death, Khomeini also made one of the toughest decisions of his life. After holding out on repeated U.N. calls for a cease-fire, he finally ended the Middle East’s bloodiest modern war: the eight-year conflict with Iraq that had produced some 180,000 Iranian deaths and half a million casualties since Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1980.
“I had promised to fight to the last drop of my blood and to my last breath. Taking this decision was more deadly than drinking hemlock,” Khomeini said in mid-1988. “To me, it would have been more bearable to accept death and martyrdom. Today’s decision is based only on the interest of the Islamic Republic.”
Reluctantly, Khomeini understood that the conflict’s end was critical to sustain a flagging revolution, ending near-existential economic costs and reenergizing a drained society. He demonstrated some realism, even practicality. It was the other bookend, along with the revolution, that shaped his legacy. He signaled that sustaining the state was more important than winning the war.
This month also marks the 25th anniversary of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s rise to power. Iran’s second supreme leader, now aging, faces uncannily similar challenges, with existential decisions and consequences again on the line. He will have the last word on any deal between Iran and the world’s six major powers to ensure that Tehran never achieves a nuclear bomb. The stakes are even higher than in the Iran-Iraq war.
The most recent diplomatic talks did not go well. After months of each side defining its priorities, the first stab at drafting a long-term deal only accentuated the profound divisions between Iran and the “P5+1,” a coalition of Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. A July 20 deadline looms.
Tehran’s obstinacy in cooperating with the international community has cost it dearly since 2006. A sequence of ever-tighter sanctions since then has steadily whittled away at Iran’s commerce and oil industry; its currency has plummeted 60 percent over the past three years. Iran has little to gain by holding out.

Ayatollah Khamenei has never had the charisma, clout or standing of his predecessor, who united millions to end more than two millennia of dynastic rule. But in the coming weeks, he faces a decision that will once again determine the Islamic Republic’s future, as well as his own legacy. Like Khomeini, he too can succeed only by acknowledging that the people and the state take precedence over either theocratic rule or revolutionary hubris.