Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The New Yorker

My Tour of Cranky Old Revolutions

The first thing that struck me during a trip to Cuba this month was how much it reminds me of Iran. Despite divergent ideologies—one Communist, the other Islamic—the aging revolutions emit the same cranky melancholia. Rhetoric is still defiant, but public zealotry has atrophied. The graffiti of rebellion, once vibrant, has faded.

In Old Havana, only part of a popular street painting of Che Guevara, with his long locks and trademark beret, has survived the years; his washed-out mouth and mustache have been filled in with a Sharpie. In Tehran, billboards of the early turbaned revolutionaries are so dull, from the sun and the decades, that they seem ghost-like.
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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The New Yorker

How the Arab Spring Became the Arab Cataclysm
By Robin Wright 
Five years ago, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vender with black curls, deep brown eyes, and chin fuzz, refused to pay a seven-dollar bribe, yet again, to a government inspector. For a man who supported his mother, five younger siblings, and an ailing uncle, seven dollars was a full day’s income—on a good day. It was the start of the epic convulsion known as the Arab Spring.
“It’s the same kind of humiliation that takes place every day in many parts of the world—the relentless tyranny of governments that deny their citizens dignity,” President Obama said in a speech about the events some months later. “Only this time something different happened. After local officials refused to hear his complaints, this young man, who had never been particularly active in politics, went to the headquarters of the provincial government, doused himself in fuel, and lit himself on fire.” Bouazizi died two and a half weeks later. Spontaneous protests erupted in sympathy, and soon spread across the region, directed against other autocrats.

Over the next fourteen months, the heads of state in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen—who had ruled for a collective hundred and seventeen years—were ousted. The President of Syria went to war with his own people to survive. “The story of this revolution, and the ones that followed, should not have come as a surprise,” Obama declared.

Five years later, the costs and consequences of the uprisings have stunned the world. “Perhaps we in the international community, and the people on the ground, were na├»ve and misled by how easy the Tunisians made it seem,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, told me this week. “The Egyptians, too, got rid of a dictator. But we underestimated the forces against democracy and rights—and the way in which other forces of repression and destruction were able to fill the vacuums that the uprisings created.”
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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Foreign Policy

The Iran Deal Wasn't Revolutionary
By Robin Wright

Those clarion pivots — Nelson Mandela’s walk to freedom or the fall of the Berlin Wall — are enchanting. It’s tempting simply to credit a visionary leader, the human spirit, or a historical trajectory. Change, however, is often foggier. It takes a convergence of causes also selfish, crudely commercial, strategically pragmatic, and more reactive than altruistic. In apartheid South Africa and the communist states of Eastern Europe, isolating societies and economies indefinitely proved too expensive, too impractical, too unsustainable. After a war that killed millions of people, Washington and Hanoi restored relations over the economic lures of new Asian markets for America and of foreign investment for Vietnam. Despite enduring ideological differences, they also shared a common fear of a rising China.

This year, Iran illustrates the density of change. For almost two generations — through six American presidencies — relations between the United States and Iran have been toxic. Revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini warned against “Westoxication,” or infection by foreign culture and political ideas. In 1979, he praised the Iranian students who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran (to the students’ surprise, prolonging the crisis) after Washington agreed to take in the ailing shah. Khomeini pronounced, “America is the Great Satan, the wounded snake” — a label that stuck. Final negotiations to free the 52 diplomats were so tortured that American and Iranian envoys wouldn’t meet in the same country, much less the same room.

Yet this July 14, top U.S. and Iranian diplomats shook hands to seal a deal to check Iran’s ability to make a nuclear bomb. Over 20 months of talks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif spent more time with each other than with any other foreign leader. Relationships bloomed across their staffs. After 36 years — almost twice as long as it took for the United States and Vietnam to restore relations — minds had changed: This August, 76 percent of Iranians surveyed said they approved of the deal with the Great Satan.

The United States likes to claim credit for forcing Iran to the negotiating table under the most punitive international sanctions ever imposed on any country. Many other factors intersected, however, to produce conditions conducive to real diplomacy. It was a long slog to cooperation — and one that’s far from over. Change can be change without being a pivot.

This is my essay on "the fog of change." Read on.....!decision-makers/detail/iran-deal-wasnt-revolutionary