Monday, September 28, 2009

Yom Kippur, now with riots!

Yom Kippur is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, when Jews around the world fast, pray, and repent their sins.  It is, ideally, calm and full of spiritual reflection.  Unfortunately, this year's 2009 will be remembered not for its spiritual significance but for yet another conflict between Israelis and Palestinians

There are differing accounts of the clash, partially due to Israel's media blackout during Yom Kippur, but the general outline of events are as follows:

A few non-Muslims tried to enter the al-Aqsa mosque or Temple Mount sometime Sunday morning, in violation of agreements between the Israelis and Palestinians.  Israeli authorities claim they were tourists, the Palestinians claim they were Israelis.  Palestinians nearby responded with violence, throwing stones and other nearby objects.  Israeli police intervened, dispersing the crowd with tear gas and stun grenades, with a few minor injuries sustained by both police and Palestinians.  They also arrested a few Palestinians.

Conflict continued throughout the day, with Palestinians throwing rocks and molotov cocktails at police throughout East Jerusalem.  Palestinian leaders blasted Israel for "deliberately escalating tensions" to prevent progress during upcoming peace negotiations.

We'll know more once Yom Kippur ends and official reports emerge.  It's still sad that, even on the holiest day of the year, peace moved a little farther away.

Ok, not entirely Bush...

I want to clarify my point in the last post.  The Bush administration held a hard line against Iran and tried to bring pressure from many different angles.  However, they did so clumsily and failed to win significant international support, particularly from China and Russia, two of Iran's key economic partners.  While nothing is certain, the Obama administration efforts have garnered significant international support including spoken support from Russia.

So sanctions may be possible and effective given a united, sustained effort.  This is where the Bush administration consistently failed.  Its outright rejection of multi-nationalism and insistence on unilaterism made international support impossible on any number of issues where the US could not achieve its objectives alone.  This was an ideological blindness that Obama obviously does not share.

One idea discussed in a great conversation with my parents last night was the possibility that there was a bit of quid pro quo with Russia concerning the missile defense shield and Iran's nuclear program.  Obama conceded some ground to Russia by realigning American missile defense priorities to the Middle East and out of Eastern Europe.  I don't think anyone realistically thinks Russia is going to launch nukes anytime soon so strategically it makes sense.  Plus, it puts further pressure on Iran by showing that the US takes the Iranian threat seriously and will take steps to counter Iranian missiles.

If Obama does get Russia's cooperation on the Iranian nuclear program and possible sanctions, then he will have won a huge diplomatic victory crucial to achieving non-proliferation.  It goes to show that toughness isn't everything; sometimes, you have to be smooth as well.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Iran, nukes, sanctions, and Israel

During Thursday's "Arab-Israeli Conflict" class, Professor Sheldon asked us how we thought the dialogue between Ahmadinejad and Obama would go at their meeting on October 1st.  A few ventured various guesses, usually along the lines of "Here is what we want you to stop doing and here's why" or "We respect you and the great nation of Iran.  We have these complaints, we're sure you have complaints as well, how can we find common ground?"  The first is essentially the Bush administration's stance and the second is the Carter administration's stance, albeit with a bit more teeth.

Professor Sheldon's criticism of the Obama administration's stance toward Iran was that it was Carter redux.  However, the Obama administration has taken a harder line toward Iran in recent weeks, particularly with the exposure of a secret Iranian nuclear installation.  In fact, they are now demanding that Iran open the facility to inspectors within weeks or face tougher sanctions.

While previous pressure on the Iranian government may have proved fruitless, circumstances have changed drastically in recent months in light of the last Iranian election and subsequent demonstrations.  The Iranian regime lost any vestiges of legitimacy it may have had domestically and is arguably at its weakest since its inception in 1979.  Many demonstrators were discontent with the focus on foreign affairs over economic and domestic concerns.  Or in other words, why should Iranians be funding Hamas and Hezbollah when there are not enough jobs in Tehran?

The Iranian system is designed to give the semblance of representation where none exists.  His bluster aside, Ahmadinejad is nothing more than a figurehead.  Real policy is made by the Supreme Leader, Khameini, and the Guardian Council, a body of twelve clerics which controls the laws and potential candidates for president and parliament.

But as Khameini and Ahmadinejad have discovered, an educated, affluent middle class demands a government sensitive to its needs and will use whatever semblance of representation it has to force such sensitivity.  Iranians want more control over their national politics; they want true representation, a desire that has been only inflamed by oppression.  And once such a movement starts, it is nearly impossible to quash without further underscoring the illegitimacy of the repressive regime.

So Obama is faced with an Iranian government that is both strong and weak at the same time; strong because its principle regional rival, Iraq, no longer is a threat, and weak because it is illegitimate in the eyes of its own people.  Obama cannot take the Carter approach lest he give cover to a repressive regime and show weakness.  Oddly enough, circumstances suggest that it may be most fruitful to pursue the Bush approach in hopes of isolating and destabilizing the Iranian government enough to set the stage for a revolution.