Saturday, February 14, 2015

The alleged tilt to Iran

Col. Derek Harvey (Ret.), appearing recently on the PBS NewsHour, voiced some criticisms of U.S. policy in the Middle East:
Well, what I see happening in Iraq in particular — let’s take a look at that — the Abadi regime there, along with Iranian support, has given free rein to Shia militias who are conducting atrocities almost on a daily basis. And they openly proclaim the U.S. is supporting their operations, which feeds into Sunni Arab paranoia and supports the ISIS narrative about a divide and that the U.S. is aligned against Sunni Arabs in the region. So that hurts us in many ways. The U.S. has a choice here. We could declare no-fly zones, no-go zones in Syria. We could have put more capability on the ground and shown some leadership and commitment, which is what Sunni Arabs are looking for in the region, be they in the Gulf or in Ankara, in Turkey. But we have yet to really show real commitment.
The urge to have done something more in Syria is understandable, but the idea that "we could have put more capability on the ground" seems a non-starter given Obama's (also understandable) determination not to involve the U.S. in any substantial way in another ground war in the region, a determination reflected, albeit perhaps too vaguely, in the language of the proposed authorization for the use of military force just submitted to Congress.  Also, if ISIS is so concerned about appealing to Sunnis and playing up the narrative of the Sunni-Shia divide, their murder of the Jordanian pilot, who was (I assume) a Sunni Muslim, does not seem designed to further that goal, to put it mildly. 

Col. Harvey also said this:
Well, Sunni Arabs, be they in the Gulf, in Jordan, you know, in countries of Syria and Iraq, the Sunni Arab communities, Turkey, they want to see an effort directed at the Assad regime and a check on Shia militia and Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately, from my perspective, the U.S. administration is focused on rapprochement with Iran, and acknowledging Tehran’s regional hegemony in the process, and that alienates Sunni Arabs, Ankara, and as well impacts Tel Aviv in Israel. So, that creates real problems for us in mobilizing support, keeping people online, and having unity of effort.
First, the U.S. is not "acknowledging Tehran's regional hegemony"; the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with Iran and Iran remains on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Trying to reach a nuclear deal does not equal recognizing Iran's regional hegemony.  

Second, the idea that the U.S.'s supposed focus on "rapprochement" with Iran "alienates" Sunni Arabs is overbroad: no doubt anything less than implacable hostility to the Iranian regime would displease some Sunni Arabs, but one need not be an expert on the region to find ridiculous the implication that all Sunnis feel this way.  "Sunni Arabs" are not a monolithic bloc, and although pan-Arabism is more or less defunct as a political movement, it only makes sense to assume that there are some political actors in the Arab world who still would rather work at overcoming their divisions than exacerbating them.  Who those actors are I'll leave to the regional experts, but I assume they exist, and for an analyst to go on TV and speak of "Sunni Arabs" as a bloc seems a disservice to American viewers.

As for all this "impact[ing] Tel Aviv": If the Israeli government had made any real progress on the Palestinian issue or shown itself open to genuine negotiations, it would have done more to reduce support for Iranian policies (and Hezbollah, and of course Hamas) in the region than anything else it could have done. Netanyahu's endless blustering about the (supposed) Iranian threat has accomplished nothing, except to confirm that the Israeli government is effectively clueless about its own long-term interests and how best to advance them. The main underlying problem for Israel's long-term security is Israeli policy w/r/t the Palestinian issue, not a supposed recognition by the U.S. of Iranian regional hegemony or the prospect of a nuclear Iran, which Netanyahu wrongly paints as some kind of apocalypse.

Lastly, and as already suggested, reducing everything analytically to the Shia-Sunni divide ignores that there are divisions within the 'camps,' and also other divisions.  As the Wash. Post noted in an editorial last month ("Headed Toward Chaos," Jan.13, 2015, p.A14), the conflict in Libya is mainly between "secular Sunnis [and] Islamists," a division that also "dominates the politics of Egypt, Tunisia, the Palestinian territories, and much of the rest of the Maghreb...."

In sum, the U.S. is not recognizing Iranian regional hegemony, and to put some kind of apocalyptic construction on U.S. efforts to relate to Iran in some way other than through unremitting hostility seems highly dubious.  Of course there must be ongoing concerns about the Iranian government's internal polices; it is hardly the model of a democratic, pluralist regime, and cases such as those of the Wash. Post reporter held for a long time in an Iranian jail deservedly garner attention.  Everyone remembers the Iranian regime's crackdown on demonstrations surrounding the 2009 election and the famous image of the young woman demonstrator beaten by regime-allied thugs and left to die in the streets.  However, the U.S. maintains relations with lots of governments that are human-rights abusers.  Anyway, Harvey's objections had nothing to do with Iran's domestic policies, so this whole line of discussion is of limited relevance to the interview.         

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