Daily Archives: May 2, 2006

Sistani & Iran

Posted by Cutler on May 02, 2006
Iran, Iraq / 12 Comments

Bush administration policy on Iran is a pretty complicated affair. I’m not yet prepared to post a full commentary on the flurry of rumors last week about a potential US nuke strike against Iran. Suffice it to say, for now, that I have my doubts that this is the neocon game plan. My reading is that neocons are not actually all that upset about the country of Iran having nukes–at least not as upset as say, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan. Neocons are, however, upset about the incumbent clerical regime in Iran having nukes.

The neocons want regime change in Iran.  They have in mind a popular rebellion, not a military strike.  The emphasis on regime change is actually all over Hersh’s New Yorker piece, but it gets second billing to the nuke attack. The only explicit connection Hersh makes between a military strike and regime change is one quote that suggests a nuke attack might lead to regime change–something like a “Falklands” scenario where military defeat leads to regime change. I have my doubts…

I find much more compelling the idea that neocons are not the ones who want to keep the Iranian nuke issue front and center; the key sources for Hersh’s articles were folks who favored coming to terms with the incumbent regime. They call it crazy and press Bush to go for a diplomatic solution.

Neocons don’t want any “accord” with the Iranian regime, but that is not the same as favoring a military attack. They favor a populist rebellion against a regime they think is quite unpopular. Moreover, my reading of neocon war strategies suggests that they think that the Iraqi clerical establishment–especially the good offices of Grand Ayatollah Sistani–might help undermine the Iranian clerical establishment.

This notion–that the US can exploit divisions between Najaf (Sistani’s base in Iraq) and Qom (the center of the Iranian clerical establishment)–may seem like the most far-fetched notion of all. (One comment by Kieran suggested that the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny would be similarly inclined to help bring down the Iranian regime).

I don’t really have a dog in this race. And I have no interest in defending neocons. But I also don’t like to underestimate my opponents. And I note, with great interest, that when Professor Juan Cole–far more of an expert on such matters than I–listed his Top Ten Myths about Iraq in 2005, number five was as follows:

5. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, born in Iran in 1930, is close to the Iranian regime in Tehran Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s majority Shiite community, is an almost lifetime expatriate. He came to Iraq late in 1951, and is far more Iraqi than Arnold Schwarzenegger is Californian. Sistani was a disciple of Grand Ayatollah Burujirdi in Iran, who argued against clerical involvement in day to day politics. Sistani rejects Khomeinism, and would be in jail if he were living in Iran, as a result. He has been implicitly critical of Iran’s poor human rights record, and has himself spoken eloquently in favor of democracy and pluralism. Ma’d Fayyad reported in Al-Sharq al-Awsat in August of 2004 that when Sistani had heart problems, an Iranian representative in Najaf visited him. He offered Sistani the best health care Tehran hospitals could provide, and asked if he could do anything for the grand ayatollah. Sistani is said to have responded that what Iran could do for Iraq was to avoid intervening in its internal affairs. And then Sistani flew off to London for his operation, an obvious slap in the face to Iran’s Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei.

I haven’t asked Professor Cole what he thinks about Neocon attempts to exploit this fissure between Sistani and the Iranian regime, but I’d sure be interested to know…

Dem Zionists? Biden & Gelb on Iraqi Partition

Posted by Cutler on May 02, 2006
Iran, Iraq / 4 Comments

Senator Joseph Biden–with Leslie Gelb–has published a NYT Op-Ed arguing for ethnic federalism in Iraq:

America must get beyond the present false choice between “staying the course” and “bringing the troops home now” and choose a third way… The idea, as in Bosnia, is to maintain a united Iraq by decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group — Kurd, Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab — room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests.

My ZNet article on Iraq focuses primarily on Republican strategic orientations, especially battles between Zionist and Arabist factions. Given the political dominance of the Republican party, there has been some urgency to mapping their views on Iraq. There are, however, parralel lines within the Democratic foreign policy establishment. The chief difference may be that Republican Zionists (so-called “neocons”) are still relatively rare within the foreign policy establishment. Not so with the Democrats. The challenge, within the Democratic party is to find any Arabists; Dem Zionists are quite plentiful.

Critics of the war in Iraq have often–and correctly–suggested that the neo-cons favor ethnic federalism in Iraq. After all, it was fear of ethnic federalism–and its regional consequences–that led Right Arabists to prop up Saddam’s rule at the end of the 1991 Gulf war and it was the Right Zionist embrace of this federalism within the administration of George W. Bush that guided the decision to end Sunni Baathist dominance of a centralized Iraq power structure. This issue has always been at the crux of the politics of war in Iraq.
There is nothing new about leading Democrats supporting plans for ethnic federalism. Back in 1991, when the first Bush administration indicated it was backing a military coup, rather than ethnic federalism and democracy, Democrats were quite critical:

“We should do what we can to encourage a democratic alternative to Saddam Hussein,” said Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “And above all, we should not accept the replacement of Saddam Hussein with another general … who will run yet one more authoritarian Iraqi regime.” (“U.S. Sees Successor to Saddam Coming From Military,” Associated Press, March 2, 1991)

Peter Galbraith, an aide to Senator Pell, went on to become a leading proponent of ethnic federalism. At the height of the 2004 Presidential campaign, he championed such a plan in the New York Review of Books.

The fundamental problem of Iraq is an absence of Iraqis… In my view, Iraq is not salvageable as a unitary state… The best hope for holding Iraq together—and thereby avoiding civil war—is to let each of its major constituent communities have, to the extent possible, the system each wants.

His proposal drew the support of Kerry’s chief foreign policy advisor, Richard Holbrooke, who indicated to the New York Times that Kerry himself was very enthusiastic about the Galbraith article.

If there is nothing particularly new about Democratic party foreign policy figures supporting such a plan, would the implementation of such a plan signify anything new in Iraq? Yes and no. On the one hand, Biden and Gelb acknowledge that their “third way” isn’t really much of a bold departure from events on the ground.

Decentralization is hardly as radical as it may seem: the Iraqi Constitution, in fact, already provides for a federal structure and a procedure for provinces to combine into regional governments… Besides, things are already heading toward partition… a breakup is already under way.

On the other hand, they may be quite right to signify a departure from current Bush administration policy. Although they represent their position as a break from Bush’s determination to “stay the course,” the truth is that the Bush administration has not stayed the course. As early as September 2003, the Bush administration began to retreat from a full embrace of ethnic federalism and began to favor Iraqi proxies–chiefly former Baathists like Iyad Allawi–who favor a restoration of something like Saddamism without Saddam. That policy has not managed to close pandora’s box; a breakup is already under way. But it is not currently US policy. As US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad never tires of repeating, the US favors a government of “national unity,” not ethnic federalism.

Biden and Gelb’s third way is, in fact, the first way. It is the way the Bush administration started the war.

Juan Cole provides a helpful clarification of the battle lines regarding the Biden/Gelb “Third Way”:

The Arab world would never forgive the United States if it broke up Iraq. You would never be able to convince them that it hadn’t been done primarily for the benefit of Israel. Iraq in the late 1970s was a comer as potentially the most powerful Arab country. To see it broken and in fragments, supine before imperial and regional powers, would be heartbreaking to Arabs and would certainly provoke anti-Western sentiments and attacks in retaliation.

Farewell to neo-cons; here come Dem Zionists.