January 30, 2011

The 3:00am call from Cairo?

Al Jazeera image in Cairo with caption:
Urgent - Tens of thousands pour into Liberation Square, and the Army secures the area
The handheld placard reads: Leave, Mubarak!

During the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, Hillary Clinton asked voters who they would want to handle a phone call at 3:00am warning of a crisis - her or Barack Obama. Given recent and ongoing events in the Middle East, I believe the phone is ringing off the hook. How the Obama Administration handles that call will determine the future of much of American foreign policy in the region. Let's hope they get it right. Judging from the formulation and execution of American foreign policy in the last two years, I am not sanguine about the outcome.

A look back at the President Obama's foreign policy efforts in the region since he took office in January 2009 reveals a lackluster record (I am being kind). His repeated attempts to engage Iran and Syria have yielded no results. Iran continues to fund, train and equip terrorist and insurgent groups that have killed American citizens in the past and are killing American troops now, not to mention its refusal to halt its uranium enrichment program and quest to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran has emerged as the primary power broker in neighboring Iraq, at American expense. Its designated "prince" (amir) Muqtada al-Sadr may someday be the most powerful man in Iraq. (See my earlier piece, Al-Sadr returns, stronger than ever.)

The President is committed to the complete withdrawal of American forces from Iraq by the end of the year. That may not be a wise move. With Iran continuing to make progress towards a nuclear weapons capability and asserting its influence throughout the Persian Gulf, it is important that the United States maintains a power projection capability and a physical presence in the region. Iraq, situated between Iran and Syria, is the perfect place to do just that.

Syria, once fairly isolated after its troops were forced to leave Lebanon in 2005, now again exerts more influence than any other country over its smaller neighbor. Against the advice of the U.S. Senate, the President used the recess appointment option to dispatch a new ambassador to Damascus, a post vacant since 2005 when Syria was almost certainly complicit in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafqi al-Hariri in Beirut. While I favor maintaining diplomatic relations with Syria, we do not need to reward Syria's actions by elevating our diplomatic relations to the ambassadorial level. (See my earlier piece, Recess appointment of ambassador to Syria.)

Syria's rising influence in Lebanon is coupled with Hizballah's proxy takeover of the government. After co-opting a mixed coalition of Shi'a, Armenian and Maronite Christian groups, the terrorist organization was able to bring down the pro-Western government of Sa'ad al-Hariri (son of the slain Rafiq) and have a pro-Hizballah candidate nominated as the new Prime Minister of the country. Najib Miqati now has 60 days to form a new government, which no doubt will be controlled by Hizballah, and no doubt advised by Hizballah's masters in Damascus and Tehran. Lebanon's days as a U.S. ally may be numbered. (See my earlier pieces, Lebanon - failure of American leadership, and Collapse of the Lebanese government - prelude to war?)

Obama's policy efforts vis-a-vis Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have not advanced American interests in the region, in fact, I submit that they have damaged them. While Westerners tend to regard the willingness to talk, or as the President says, "engage," as a sign of strength, Middle Easterners regard it as a sign of weakness. It is the proverbial "blink" that emboldens our antagonists.

All that said, it was the revolt in Tunisia, an American ally, that is more akin to Hillary's hypothetical 3:00am phone call. The country remains in a state of turmoil, but its plight has been overshadowed by events in Egypt. Of some concern is the return of Rashid al-Ghanushi, leader of the Tunisian Islamist party al-Nadhah (Renaissance) after 22 years in exile. It is doubtful that he will be able to establish an Islamic government in Tunisia, and he claims he does intend to try, but the increased influence of Islamists in Tunisia should not be ignored. The Obama Administration needs to work with the interim government to ensure that at best Tunisia remains an American ally, and at worst does not become an Islamic Republic. (See my earlier piece, Tunisia - a snapshot of the future?)

However, as alarming as the situation in Tunisia was two weeks ago, it is the events in Egypt now that are the most disconcerting. It seems inevitable that President Husni Mubarak will have to step down. The question as I see it is not if, but when - and how. This is one foreign policy issue that President Obama must get right. Egypt is one of America's major Arab allies, on the same level as our relationship with Saudi Arabia. With a population of almost 85 million people, it is the heart of the Arab world. It was also the first Arab nation to make peace with Israel and has been helpful in the peace process.

Although Mubarak has taken steps that he hopes will allow him to remain in power, it is becoming apparent that his days in office are numbered. His appointment of a vice president for the first time since he assumed office in 1981 after the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat may buy some time, but not much. His choice for the position was Lieutenant General 'Umar Sulayman, Director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service and former Director of Military Intelligence. Sulayman is well-regarded in Egyptian and international circles, but his close relationship with Mubarak may cause the demonstrators to reject him as a viable successor to Mubarak.

The impending collapse of the Mubarak government has also overshadowed alarming events in two other American allies: Yemen and Jordan. There have been popular demonstrations in the streets of both countries. Jordan, a very close ally of the United States in the war on terror, was the second Arab country to recognize Israel. Yemen has been somewhat useful in American efforts to combat al-Qa'idah elements operating in the Arabian Peninsula.

Islamists may try to step into any power vacuum created in any of these countries. It is regrettable, but understandable. While the governments of these countries are American allies, the people may or may not be. In many cases, an unpopular government is assisted in maintaining power by the United States, for whatever reasons. The actual reasons are not important, the perception is, and any perception that the United States is supporting autocratic regimes does not portend well for future relations if and when there is a change of government.

The Obama Administration has received the 3:00am phone call. The answer needs to be quick and clear. We cannot afford the loss of any of these American allies.

January 24, 2011

Lebanon - failure of American leadership

Hizballah militiamen

While the Obama Administration has been focused on an engagement policy with nations like Syria and Iran, an American ally has slipped away. On January 24, the alliance that brought down the government of now former Prime Minister Sa'ad al-Hariri nominated Najib Miqati as prime minister. The nomination was confirmed by the Parliament, and Lebanese President Mishal Sulayman had no choice but to ask Hizballah-backed Miqati to form a new government.

In effect, Hizballah has taken over the government of Lebanon. That's probably not the most accurate way to describe what has happened. Perhaps I should say that Hizballah now is the government of Lebanon. They have achieved their long-term goal of becoming the key power bloc in the country. Of course, with Hizballah in control, advice (read: instructions) will certainly flow from Tehran and Damascus.

Yes, guidance, advice, orders - whatever you chose to call them, will originate in the two countries that have been two key targets (note that I am still using the T-word) of the Obama Administration's engagement policy in the Middle East. Rather than continuing attempts to isolate the autocratic regimes in Iran and Syria, this administration decided to change the Bush Administration's policy and reach out to two governments with American blood on their hands.

The policy change has weakened our position with Iran. While many Americans (with little or no experience in the Middle East), including the President, believe that a willingness to talk is a sign of strength, it is perceived in Tehran (as well as Damascus) as a sign of weakness. Iran continues to support Syria and Hizballah, and has not wavered in its quest to enrich uranium, no doubt part of its program to develop nuclear weapons.

With Syria, the effects of the Obama Administration's policy are more immediate. The Syrians were forced to withdraw from Lebanon in 2005 after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri by Hizballah and Syrian intelligence. The United States withdrew its ambassador from Damascus and began to isolate the Syrian government of Bashar al-Asad. Syrian influence over Lebanon appeared on the wane. Despite the 2006 war between Hizballah and Israel, Lebanon appeared to thrive under the pro-Western government. Business activity was up, real estate rebounded and life got better, and peace in Lebanon, elusive for decades, seemed almost possible.

With the advent of the novices to the White House, the policy of keeping the Syrians from regaining their influence in Lebanon changed to one of reaching out to the regime in Damascus. It happens every eight years or so when we have a change of administration. The new officials think they can change hundreds of years of tradition and history with their perceived superior wisdom and charm. Bashar al-Asad, who learned the art of Byzantine politics from a master, his father Hafiz, drew the new administration in. The new admininstration unwittingly gave up Lebanon in hopes of a better relationship with Syria.

In the Obama Administration's defense, I understand what they were trying to accomplish: befriend Syria and attempt to drive a wedge between the Tehran-Damascus axis. Once done, that would pave the way for progress on the Syria-Israel track of the Middle East peace process. The only hitch was turning a blind eye to Syria's resurgence in Lebanon. Along with Syrian resurgence came an increased governmental role for Hizballah.

First, Hizballah merely demanded a seat at the table. Then they asked for more seats in the Parliament. After a series of alliances with former foes, including the Druze led by Walid Junblat and the Maronite Christians led by Mishal 'Awun, they had enough votes to effectively veto any legislation in the Parliament.

When it beccame apparent that the Lebanese government under Prime Minister Sa'ad al-Hariri was not going to oppose the United Nations Special Tribunal on Lebanon from indicting Hizballah officials for the 2005 murder of Rafiq al-Hariri, Hizballah and its allies resigned from the cabinet and collapsed the government in January. Lebanon has succumbed to the relentless onslaught of Hizballah political maneuverings, no doubt advised and encouraged by the Syrians and Iranians.

Until now a nominally pro-Western nation, with Najib Miqati Lebanon now has a Hizballah-sponsored and supported prime minister.

What is next?

Upon accepting the nomination Najib Miqati said that he hoped for "cooperation between institutions according to the Ta'if Accords." What an outrageous comment. The Ta'if Accords and United Nations Security Council Resolution 1549 established a mechanism for the cessation of hostilities in Lebanon and called for the disbanding of all militias. All of the factions agreed and complied with them with one glaring exception: Hizballah.

UNSCR 1549 also required the removal of all foreign forces from Lebanon. Hizballah maintained that the Syrians were there at the request of the Lebanese government and thus exempt. Israel removed its forces in 2000, as certified by the UN. Hizballah claimed that Israel still occupied a disputed border area (the Shaba' Farms) they claim is Lebanese; Israel claims it is part of Syria. Therefore, Hizballah maintained "Lebanese Resistance Forces."

We'd all like to see Hizballah abide by Ta'if and UNSCR 1549, but it won't. The fact that Hizballah is now not only the most powerful political force in the country but arguably the most powerful military force as well does not bode well for the country's future as a republic.

So, Mr. Obama, how is that outreach policy working out for you? More importantly, how is it working our for our allies in Lebanon?

January 20, 2011

Tunisia - a snapshot of the future?

Marketplace in Tunis (Photo: Rick Francona)

The recent events in Tunisia should serve as a wake up call to other countries of the Arab world. Most people tend to disregard Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, the nations of North Africa* (Arabic: al-maghrib, literally, "where the sun sets"), as only an ancillary part of the Arab world because of the large number of Berbers in the population.

I was surprised at the uprising in Tunisia. I was in Tunis shortly after recently-deposed President Zayn al-'Abadin bin 'Ali took power in a bloodless coup from President Habib Burqibah after a 30-year rule. The transition was taken in stride by the population.

In late 1987, I was assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency as the Assistant Defense Intelligence Officer for the Middle East and South Asia. We liked to say we were responsible for watching Defense Department interests "from Marrakech to Bangladesh." One of our responsibilities was interacting with the defense attachés in Washington. In early November, we had a meeting with the Tunisian Defense Attaché at the Pentagon. I remember his name, Colonel Boudabous, because it means "truncheon" in Arabic - how apropos. Almost immediately after our meeting, the colonel returned to Tunis. Later, it became apparent that he was part of the coup.

Although the newly installed president was pro-American, when I visited Tunis there was an uneasy feeling in the city. I do not speak the Maghrebi dialect of Arabic well, but well enough enough to understand that there was a real sense of frustration in the population about the future of the country. As with many Arab countries, and likely many Muslim countries as well, there is a huge youth population thanks to the high birth rate among Muslims. This growing segment of society is concerned that they will not have jobs, nor will they be able to participate in the social contract of governing their own country. I suspect they are correct.

What has happened in Tunisia over the last week might be a harbinger of things to come across the Arab, and even more importantly, the Muslim world. Tunisia might be representative of the simmering anger and frustration of a generation of youth who believe their political and social aspirations are not being addressed by the mostly corrupt regimes in the region.

It is not just me that believes this. The Secretary General of the Arab League 'Amr Musa highlighted the conditions that led to what is being termed as the 'Jasmine Revolution" (a reference to the flowers that are common in the city of Tunis) in Tunisia. The poverty, corruption and the perceived lack of potential to address political and social aspirations has created a tinderbox of pent-up frustration that might ignite across the Arab world.

Musa's succinct comments were right on target (I'll use the word
"target" regardless of the inane post-Tucson political correctness): "The Arab soul is broken by poverty, unemployment and general recession ... The political problems have driven the Arab citizen to a state of unprecedented anger and frustration." (Note: not my translation.)

Wow! Where have you heard that before? Well, here, if you have been reading.

What has just happened in Tunisia is symptomatic of the situation in many Arab countries. As Secretary Musa says, anger and frustration are rampant in the Arab world. It will not go away soon. In many of the Arab countries, fully one in five citizens are under the age of 20. Who is going to employ these young people, many of them who have educated in the West and exposed to western values? Who is going to allow them input to the political system?

Unfortunately, the answer in most cases is no one. This situation creates a pool of unhappy youth who are easily recruited into Islamist jihadi organizations. The number of young North African fighters in the ranks of al-Qa'idah in Iraq is higher than almost any other group.

Morocco and Algeria, beware.
* Many Middle East analysts include Libya and Mauritania as part of the Maghreb.

January 13, 2011

Refresh my memory - why are we talking to the Iranians?

Iranian acting foreign minister and head of Atomic Energy
Organization of Iran Dr. Ali Akbar Salehi (AFP/FARS NEWS)

Call me confused.

That would be in addition to the complaints that I am obsessed with Iran (I am). I am reading the headlines from the Middle East, as I do everyday, and am getting mixed signals about the upcoming talks in Istanbul between Iran on one side and six of the world's leading powers on the other. Those six countries represent the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States) plus Germany, the so-called P5+1.

I thought the purpose of the meeting hosted by Turkey, a (nominal) NATO ally, is to discuss the Iranian nuclear program, specifically Iran's refusal to halt its uranium enrichment until questions about its program are resolved. I got the impression that the nuclear program is to be the focus of the talks from what apparently is a misleading Turkish media reports that the country's foreign minister was busy preparing for the upcoming "nuclear talks" in Istanbul.

The Turkish foreign minister met with Ali Bagheri, the deputy to Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, at the same time that Iran's Atomic Energy Organization chief Dr. Ali Akbar Salehi stated that Iran will not discuss the nuclear program at the upcoming talks.

Salehi's words: "We will absolutely not recognize the negotiation if the other side wants to negotiate on the issue of the nuclear dossier. The technical and legal aspects of any country's nuclear issues can be discussed only with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the agency, based on international rules and regulations, is the only authority to judge the member states' issues. If we consider this as the principle...then discussing the issue, named (Iran) nuclear issue, from our point of view is a dossier fabricated by the West and discussing it with the five-plus-one about this is meaningless."

Of course, Salehi, who is likely to be named as Iran's new foreign minister, is only executing the policy articulated by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who maintains that the nuclear issue is a "closed file." If the nuclear issue is in fact not to be discussed, then why are meeting with the Iranians? What else is there to discuss?

While the Iranian regime attempts to appear rational and reasonable by agreeing to endless talks, they are steadily amassing the fissile material required for the development of nuclear weapons. Rather than allow the Iranians to continue this kabuki dance and the facade of meaningful negotiations, we should refuse to meet unless the sole agenda item is the nuclear program.

If the Iranians will not agree to that, then we should expose them for who they are, mere actors in a choreographed charade to buy time for their nuclear weapons program. We should not attend the performance.

January 12, 2011

Collapse of the Lebanese government - prelude to war?

Graffiti with image of Hizballah leader Sayid Hasan Nasrallah
Writing reads:
Victory from God

The timing was perfect. As Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'ad al-Hariri met with President Barack Obama at the White House, 10 of Lebanon's 30 cabinet ministers announced their resignations; another minister followed suit later in the day. The resignations of more than one third of the cabinet effectively and legally collapsed the government, and now further exacerbates the crisis in the country over the expected United Nations indictments of Hizballah leaders for complicity in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri (father of the current prime minister).

The Lebanese government was fragile to say the least. In November 2009, based on Hizbllah's strength and bullying tactics, the government agreed to a power sharing arrangement in which Hizballah was given two seats in the national unity government. The Shi'a group allied with another Shi'a movement, Amal and its three seats, and with a group of four Maronite Christians led by former general Mishal 'Aun, and a Druze minister. This group of eleven in effect had veto power in the cabinet.

The resignations are in protest to the cabinet's refusal to call an emergency session to somehow oppose the upcoming UN indictments of Hizballah officials. If there was any shred of evidence that the indictments are faulty, there would at least be a reason to resist them. Most Middle East observers, including me, believe that the indictments have merit. It would surprise me if Hizballah and Syria (and possibly Iran) were not involved in the assassination.

Crises in Lebanon are nothing new; the country has had a violent past, including a bloody civil war from 1975 to 1990. There have also been wars between Hizballah and Israel, between the Palestinians and Israel, and between the Syrians and Israel, all on Lebanese soil. Unfortunately, the current crisis has the potential to ignite yet another round of civil war.

Should that occur, I am of the opinion that Hizballah will likely emerge as the primary military power in Lebanon to complement its political power. A war serves Syria's interests as well. Just as they intervened in 1976, ostensibly in response to a request from the Lebanese government, they may intervene again, except this time the Lebanese government may actually request troops from Damascus. If the government does not request Syrian intervention and Hizballah emerges victorious, Syria still wins.

If you had to assess the events in terms of the world stage, another American ally is on the decline while Hizballah, Syria and Iran seem to be on the ascent.

The Lebanese may avert another civil war, but it will be close.

January 11, 2011

Raze the Shepherd Hotel for settlements? Symptomatic....

A private Israeli company is razing the historic Shepherd Hotel in East Jerusalem and will construct a housing area in its place. The move has angered Palestinians, who hope that East Jerusalem, where the hotel was located, will be the capital of the future state of Palestine. Of course, the mayor of Jerusalem, an influential voice in Israeli politics, just stated that the city will never be divided, that the entire city of Jerusalem, including the eastern section, was, is and will always be the capital of the state of Israel.

Many Israelis were pleased to see the destruction of the Shepherd Hotel. The building was built in the 1930's and was the home of Haj Muhammad Amin al-Husayni, at that time the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and later an avowed supporter and ally of Adolf Hitler during World War II. After the British exiled al-Husayni from the Palestinian Mandate in 1937, they used it as a military office building. When the Jordanians occupied and administered the area from 1948 to 1967, control reverted to the Mufti's estate, which rented it to the hotel operators.

In 1967, the Israelis seized the area of East Jerusalem in the Six Day War and have occupied it ever since. The Israelis condemned the Shepherd Hotel building and passed control of it to the government Custodian of Absentee Property. It was later sold to a Jewish American developer.

It was the condemnation and later sale of the building that the Palestinians cite as an illegal seizure of Palestinian property. The Palestinian position is quite clear, although ignored. According to the spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, "Israel has no right to build in any part of East Jerusalem, or any part of the Palestinian land occupied in 1967."

The destruction of the hotel is not in and of itself that problematic. Although the building is described as historic and does make for an interesting story, it pales in comparison to other buildings in the area. It is Jerusalem, after all, holy to three of the world's major religions. The destruction is, however, symptomatic of continued Israeli consolidation of its claim to, and hold over, the entire city of Jerusalem.

Since taking the entire city in 1967, the Israelis have consistently expanded their presence into traditional Arab areas. Minister of the Knesset (and later prime minister) Ariel Sharon developed a unique tactic called "block busting" for Israeli expansion. Sharon would buy an apartment in an Arab neighborhood and move in. The government would then condemn and confiscate the surrounding apartments "for security reasons," thus changing the Arab character of the building and area. Once that happened, the Arab landowners sold their property in droves to get away from the Jewish expansion.

'Adnan al-Husayni (yes, related to the late Grand Mufti), Palestinian "governor" of the Palestinian Authority's governorate of Jerusalem, said the demolition was the latest in a line of demolitions of historic buildings and accused Israel of "trying to erase any Palestinian identity" from the city. I can see his point.

The Israeli government counters that its Arab citizens are allowed to buy or rent property in Jerusalem's neighborhoods that have a Jewish majority. The claim is a bit disingenuous. Many of the areas are reserved for veterans, and since virtually all Israelis serve in the military, theoretically it is open to all. Not quite, since Israel's Arabs are exempt from mandatory military service.

To her credit, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the razing of the hotel "undermines peace efforts to achieve the two state-solution," and "contradicts the logic of a reasonable and necessary agreement...on the status of Jerusalem."

The status of Jerusalem is the key issue to a lasting agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis. Statements by either side have not been helpful toward that goal.

January 6, 2011

Al-Sadr returns, stronger than ever

Al-sayid Muqtada al-Sadr (center)

Radical and virulently anti-American Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr retuned to Iraq after a three-year stay in Iran. Ostensibly, al-Sadr was in Qom, Iran to continue his Islamic studies and attain the title of ayatollah; he had been a hawjat al-islam prior. His return to the Shi'a holy city of al-Najaf, site of the martyrdom of the first Shi'a imam 'Ali (son in law and cousin of the prophet Muhammad), was greeted with almost uncontrollable revelry in the streets.

This is a bad omen. It was not unexpected, in fact, many of us Iraq analysts had predicted it. I have said that at some point in the not too distant future, Muqtada al-Sadr will emerge as the key power broker in Iraqi politics. That time may be drawing nigh.

Why is this 37-year old such an influential figure? Muqtada al-Sadr is a sayid. Sayid is the Arabic word for mister, or sir. In Shi'a Islam, it also denotes a person who is a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatimah and cousin 'Ali. It entitles him to wear the black turban.

The Shi'a believe that leadership of the faithful should have been via the prophet's bloodline, and al-Sadr clearly qualifies. His family lineage is traceable back to the sixth iman, Ja'afar al-Sadiq, and the seventh imam, Musa al-Khadhim. The shrine of the seventh imam is located in the northwest section of Baghdad, appropriately named al-Khadhimiyah*. While Westerners sometimes dismiss the cache of the credibility of this direct lineage, Iraqis do not.

Al-Sadr left Iraq in 2007 as the American troop surge was beginning, ostensibly to enter into advanced religious training in Iran. While he did in fact enroll in studies in Qom, I suspect the reason for his departure was the fact that tens of thousands of American combat troops were headed for Iraq and would have taken on and destroyed what was left of his militia, the jaysh al-mahdi (Army of the Mahdi, or JAM).

Regardless of al-Sadr's qualifications or alleged integrity, his is politically astute. He realized that President George Bush was serious about ending the internecine violence in Iraq and had deployed enough troops to stop it. The new forces were not support troops, but trained and experienced combat units that were capable of taking the fight to the enemy, be it against the al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI) elements in the "Sunni triangle" northwest of Baghdad, or Iranian-sponsored Shi'a militias like the JAM in Baghdad and to the south.

In al-Anbar governorate, the Sunni tribal leaders had become disenchanted with the rigid and arrogant foreign AQI leadership and decided to ally with the Americans, allowing the shaykhs to retain control of their traditional tribal areas. While generally religious, these shaykhs were not fanatics like the AQI youth from outside the country. The shaykhs were not in favor of a new social order, preferring life as it was before the war. The best way to attain that was to ally with the Americans and expel the AQI.

The "Anbar Awakening" was not lost on al-Sadr. With the Sunnis making their peace with the Americans, and thousands of American combat troops arriving in the country, the focus was sure to turn to the JAM and one Muqtada al-Sadr. Rather than have his followers decimated by the better trained and equipped Americans, he ordered his militia to stand down. He himself departed for Iran to pursue religious studies. In other words, he ran.

However, as I said, al-Sadr well understands Iraqi politics, particularly Iraqi Shi'a politics. When you say "Shi'a politics," you also have to consider Iran and its influence on Iraq's Shi'a majority. Despite the 1980-1988 bloody war between Iraq and Iran, most Shi'a on both sides of the border view that conflict as a war triggered by the Sunni Ba'thist regime of Saddam Husayn, and not a war between Shi'a brethren. The Shi'a bond is strong, as evidenced by the close relations between the Iranians and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, senior Iraqi cleric Grand Ayatollah 'Ali al-Saystani and of course, Muqtada al-Sadr.

Despite the close relationship between the Iranians and the Iraqi Shi'a, the Iraqi Shi'a have differences as well. How they resolve these differences may well determine the future of the country. After all, it was Prime Minister al-Maliki's troops that effectively eliminated the JAM as a fighting force during internal struggles in 2008. There has always been tension between the non-violent al-Saystani and the confrontational al-Sadr.

In the recent maneuverings to form an Iraqi government, al-Sadr joined a coalition with al-Maliki and the Kurds against a secular group that actually won more seats in the election. Without al-Sadr's support, it is almost certain that al-Maliki would have been forced from office; he is beholden to al-Sadr for his position. Both al-Maliki and al-Sadr have close relations with Iran.

It would appear that the key power brokers in Iraq are now Iran and Muqtada al-Sadr. Not bad for someone who turned tail and ran and whose militia was decimated by his current ally.

As the United States prepares to withdraw all of its forces, against my advice, who will emerge as the most powerful man in Iraq? I say Muqtada al-Sadr. It did not have to be this way; I advocated killing him in 2003 when we had the chance.

* In 1987 and 1988, I worked out of an office in the headquarters of the Iraqi Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) located in al-Khadimiyah less than a mile from the Musa al-Khadhim shrine. In 2006, Saddam Husayn was executed at that same DMI facility.

January 2, 2011

What century are we in? - Part Two: Iran

Scene from the movie The Stoning of Soraya M. (a true story)

Some months ago, I wrote an article titled "Saudi Arabia - What century are we in here?" It was about the Saudis sentencing a Lebanese television personality to death for the crime of witchcraft. Yes, witchcraft - you cannot make this stuff up.

Continuing in my "Iran obsession*" series, I now ask the same question about Iran.

Only public outcry has saved a woman from being executed by stoning in the Islamic Republic. A court in Tabriz sentenced an Azeri woman convicted of adultery to 99 lashes, which she received. Later, she was accused of complicity in the murder of her husband, but was acquitted. After the acquittal, the judge re-sentenced her for her earlier crime of adultery, this time imposing the sentence of death by stoning.

To gain a perspective on just how brutal this method of execution is, I recommend the movie The Stoning of Soraya M. (available at
Netflix or Blockbuster [watch trailer]). The movie is based on a true story. Soraya Manutchehri was stoned to death in Iran in 1986.

Stoning as a punishment did not exist in Iran until 1983, when the current Islamic penal code was ratified. Stoning is legal punishment for consensual adultery between married adults. Unmarried sex partners normally receive sentences of 99 lashes. Is this what the Iranian people wanted when they overthrew the Shah and brought in the ayatollahs?

Following international outcries over stoning after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the government allegedly placed a moratorium on the practice in 2002. Despite that, it is believed that scores of men and women have been stoned to death. Women tend to be stoned more often as the burden of proof for adultery is always on the woman, regardless whether the accused is the husband or wife. In other words, the wife must prove herself innocent or prove her husband guilty.

After the release of the movie in 2008, the Iranian Islamic judiciary submitted a new penal code to the legislature (Islamic Consultative Assembly). The new code has never been ratified and stoning remains on the books. Until the new penal code is adopted, we will continue to hear stories of stoning in Iran.

In the words of a close friend who lives in the region, "What a country."

* A reader recently accused me of being obsessed with Iran. I am, with good reason. See my article, Obsessed with Iran? Me?

January 1, 2011

Recess appointment of ambassador to Syria

The author with the Syrian deputy minister of defense in 1994

President Obama took advantage of the recess appointment option and appointed Robert Ford as the American ambassador to Syria. The option allows the President to bypass the normal advice and consent of the Senate by appointing officials to fill positions when the Senate is in recess.

By way of disclosure and background, I was the Air Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus from 1992 to 1995. I consider myself to be fairly familiar with Syria, the embassy in Damascus and the political relationship between Syria and the United States.

Some thoughts on the appointment.

The ambassador to Syria is always a career foreign service officer, not a political appointee. Political appointees go to the more popular places (read: Europe), or to special countries. For example, Saudi Arabia generally prefers a political appointee. The Saudis believe they are important enough to the United States that they deserve an ambassador who can call the President directly, not go through the bureaucracy at the State Department. I have personally heard an American ambassador to Riyadh attempt to intimidate Defense Department officials with the statement, "You realize, of course, that Bill [Clinton] is in my speed dial...."

We have had diplomatic relations with what is now Syria since before there was a Syria - we had a legation in Aleppo during the Ottoman Empire days; it was established in 1835 (the original sign is displayed in the ambassador's office in Damascus). With the exceptions of a short period in 1957 and again between 1967 and 1974, we have maintained diplomatic relations with Syria.

In 2005 after Syria was accused of complicity (rightly so, in my estimation) in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, the United States recalled our ambassador to Washington "for consultations." It is important to note that although we have not had an ambassador in Damascus since then (until the recent recess appointment), we have still maintained diplomatic relations, just not at the ambassadorial level.

The senior State officer at the embassy serves as the Chargé d'Affaires. I think this is a good solution. The Syrians keep their ambassador ('Imad Mustafa, a very effective spokesman and social fixture) in Washington, and with the exception of the ambassador, we have a full embassy staff in Damascus. It is maintaining diplomatic relations while making a principled statement.

Remember what an embassy is. It is not only a venue for our diplomats to represent the United States, but a presence for other departments and agencies of the government. Depending on the country, an American embassy will have attachés and representatives from the Defense Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Aviation Administration, etc., and yes, not surprisingly, the Central Intelligence Agency.

It is no secret that we always have problems understanding what is happening in countries where we do not have a presence. Iran, North Korea, Iraq from 1990 to 2003, Afghanistan between 1979 and 2001 - anyone see a pattern here? No embassy, no reliable information. The ability to put American eyes on a situation is invaluable.

I don't like recess appointments. I realize they are perfectly legal and that every president since George Washington has used them. I prefer to have the debate - do we want to send an ambassador, or do we want to maintain an embassy without an ambassador? I think the Senate should have had the debate, then a vote up or down. If the Senate abdicates its advice and consent obligations, they leave the President no choice but to determine policy on his own.

That said, I think Mister Obama is being naive. From what I have seen so far in his two years in office, he has not figured out how to deal with the Byzantine bazaaris who are the Syrians; thus far they have outmaneuvered him. I suspect that the President believes Syrian President Bashar al-Asad will take this recess appointment as a gesture that the United States wants improved relations and will reciprocate in some manner.

I remain skeptical, since al-Asad will assess it as a sign of weakness. The United States is coming to him. They are rewarding his behavior in Lebanon, continued support for Hizballah, his harboring Palestinian terrorists, etc.

This is not about Ambassador Ford. From what I have read and heard, he's a fine choice. I just would have preferred that we as a country had the debate, that the U.S. Senate would have provided advice to the President and then withheld its consent.

We need an embassy in Damascus; we don't need an ambassador.