Monthly Archives: November 2013

Freedom and equality are at the core of the Palestinians’ struggle

Writing recently in the New York Times, former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad cited Nelson Mandela as his personal inspiration and the embodiment of the essential attributes of the Palestinian cause. It was a perfect choice.

Mr Mandela, he wrote, has become a “universal symbol of the struggle for self-determination and human equality”. The essence of the Palestinian struggle is exactly that: a quest for establishing that Palestinians are equal human beings to all others. They are no better and no worse, but equal.

The only viable means for Palestinians to attain and assert this equality is through the establishment of a fully sovereign, independent Palestinian state. Through this state, Palestinians will be first-class citizens in a country of their own for the first time in their modern history. For the first time, they will be able to exercise self-determination. And, for the first time, they will be equal to Jewish Israelis, and all of their Arab neighbours, as citizens of equally sovereign, independent states that will have to coexist in peace and security.

Equality of the kind envisaged by Mr Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, Mohandas K Gandhi, and invoked by Mr Fayyad, doesn’t involve a highly regimented, nihilistic vision of non-differentiation, such has been advocated by some radical Maoist and other extreme utopian groups. It understands that each individual is different, and that there will be many differences between societies as well. It doesn’t seek to smash everyone into a tiny cubbyhole of conformity and standardisation.

Instead, it seeks to free the creative and self-empowering energies of every individual and society. For a national collectivity like the Palestinians, this means freedom from occupation and for the equal right – along with all other peoples – to establish their own state and pursue their independence as they see fit.

It does not and it cannot in the real world mean perfect justice, which is, by definition, unattainable. But it does mean relieving an extreme form of injustice: the occupation that leaves over four million Palestinians stateless in their own land.

Mr Fayyad and other serious Palestinians understand that this means compromises with Israel. Israel, too, must rein in the overweening ambitions of its settler and annexationist movements and make serious compromises on politically difficult issues such as Jerusalem, which will have to be a shared city if the conflict is to end.

Mr Fayyad is absolutely right when he points to “the fundamental asymmetry in the balance of power between occupier and occupied” as the primary obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace. It is simply too easy for the Israeli public to ignore the problem of the occupation and pretend, in effect, as it did in its last election, that it simply doesn’t exist.

But the world has a stake in resolving the conflict by ending the occupation, and the two-state solution is the stated policy of virtually every government in the world, the preference of the majority of Israelis and Palestinians in every survey and the only outcome explicitly endorsed by international law. The global consensus is practically unanimous: Palestinians deserve a state alongside Israel, which is already a United Nations member state.

Moreover, Israel has no other vision or real options for what to do with these millions of stateless people whom it cannot formally incorporate while remaining in any sense “Jewish”, nor can it continue to repress them indefinitely. Having successfully imposed a fait accompli on the Middle East and the world in 1948, some Israelis now feel they can do the same in the territories occupied since 1967.

They cannot.

The demographic realities, international standards and norms and the long-term repercussions of annexation, expulsion or the indefinite continuation of the status quo are untenable.

But, as Mr Fayyad points out, there is also a powerful moral dimension here. The cause of Palestinian independence is, more than anything, an ethical one, and a long-overdue expression of the principle of fundamental human equality.

This cuts both ways. Israel, he writes, should reciprocate the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s 1993 recognition of Israel by accepting “an internationally mandated date for ending its occupation, and a mutually agreed-upon path for getting there”. For their own part, Mr Fayyad has always insisted, especially as prime minister, that Palestinians must “build our state and deepen our readiness for statehood”. He rightly demands that Israel refrain from impeding these efforts.

Mr Fayyad cites Mr Mandela as being the exemplar of “resisting the entrapment of victimhood and overcoming the burdens of injustice”. His is a powerful double message: the Palestinian cause is a quest for justice, and the world must recognise its overwhelming moral authority.

At the same time, Palestinians must shake off the trap of a victimhood mentality and act purposefully, systematically and strategically to build their own society while non-violently resisting the occupation to achieve not merely independence but actual liberation.

A quick glance around the contemporary Arab world shows what independence without liberation can sometimes look like. Palestinians must have an independent state. And in that democratic, pluralistic and tolerant state, Palestinians must individually be equal citizens under the law.

These twin moral imperatives – freedom from Israeli occupation and a Palestinian society based on equality and the rule of law – are what Mr Fayyad is invoking Mr Mandela to advocate.

Mr Fayyad’s plea – and Mr Mandela, Dr King and Gandhi’s examples – all simply boil down to this: every individual and every people deserve the simple recognition of human equality.

The predictable Iran deal raises many unpredictable questions

Love it or hate it, the interim nuclear deal with Iran raises important strategic questions for the whole Middle East

Inside the Bushehr power plant


I’m not in the least surprised that the “P5+1,” led by the United States and Iran, were able to agree to a time-buying “first step” nuclear agreement.

Back in January, when the newly-re-elected President Barack Obama was assembling his national security team, I argued that they seem to have been carefully chosen to pursue, above all, the Iran file.

And, in September, like others, I saw the potential for an interim agreement that doesn’t resolve the matter permanently but “buys everyone time.”

On Saturday night, it happened. Iran promised to stop advancement at its main nuclear facilities, including the heavy water plutonium plant under construction near Arak. Half its 20%-enriched uranium will be oxidized (rendering it unsuitable for weapons), and the other half will be downgraded to below 5% enrichment, which is only useful for non-military purposes.

The agreement permits Iran to continue to enrich uranium below 5%, but under scrutiny and with snap inspections. Iran has hailed this as a recognition of its so-called “right to enrich,” while the international community, especially the United States, notes that no such “right” is either explicitly or implicitly recognized in the agreement.

In exchange, Iran will get about $8 billion of its own money back in sanctions relief. Other sanctions are to be lifted in the petrochemical, automotive, and civilian aircraft sectors.

The agreement, assuming it is implemented in full, can be defended as having actually rolled back Iran’s approach toward nuclear weapons breakout capability without a shot being fired, at least by a few months. But it’s only defensible as a preliminary time-buying measure.

The largest, long-term issues, predictably enough, remain almost entirely unaddressed, including the quantity and quality of centrifuges Iran possesses and operates, what happens to its stockpiles of enriched uranium, a full accounting of everything Iran has done toward acquiring a nuclear weapon, and other relevant activities such as triggering and warhead devices.

On these bases, Israel and many members of the US Congress have expressed dismay, as has, more cautiously, Saudi Arabia. The deepest fear is that the US-Iranian engagement redraws the strategic landscape of the Middle East in an unpredictable and, for many, unsettling manner.

This raises three obvious questions.

First, will Iran see the opportunity for more aggressive action throughout the Middle East on the part of its clients and proxies in countries like Syria and Lebanon? Iran may calculate that it now has a freer hand simply because it has become a US partner in a grand experiment of extremely ambitious diplomacy. So a key question, which is disturbing the sleep of Israel, Arab states, and other observers throughout the world, is whether this limited but unmistakably historic agreement will make Iran and its proxies more regionally aggressive.

Second, will the United States be able to reassure its allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others in the Arab world, that it remains an effective guarantor of their security in spite of this dramatic change? Israel, too, will be looking for reassurances. It is already attempting to deploy its considerable resources in Washington to push back against both the agreement and the general engagement with Iran.

Third, if US regional allies are not placated, will they seek to act as spoilers and try to scuttle the deal through their own direct and indirect interventions? Israel has the political resources to try to do this in the most direct manner possible: by influencing the mood and debate in the US Congress. But other American regional allies might feel forced to explore an expanded proxy, including unconventional and clandestine campaigns aimed at provoking the Iranians.

Is it possible that in seeking to preserve regional stability and contain the threat from Iran, the United States is actually and inadvertently creating conditions for a different kind of regional security deterioration? This probably depends more than anything else on how Washington explains exactly what it’s doing to its friends in the region, and how this approach doesn’t threaten their fundamental interests.

One final question: what happens in six months if the parties cannot agree to a broader deal that resolves all outstanding issues, as envisaged in the interim agreement? In the end, only Iran can really stop itself from going nuclear, given how far it has already come.

The most likely scenario, given that the principal aim of both sides is purchasing time, is either an extension of the existing agreement or additional interim agreements in which further steps are taken by both sides. However, the biggest bones of contention would be habitually postponed for another day, and another leadership, to grapple with.

If the parties can live with this general arrangement for six months – and want to continue to avoid a full-blown confrontation – then they can probably live with it, possibly with some further adjustments, for at least six years.

Do the mountains hold the destiny of the Syrian conflict?

For Bashar Al Assad it is a potentially devastating trouble spot in Syria’s western corridor that he needs to control. For rebel forces, it is their most important asset, and their pathway into Damascus and other key regime strongholds.

Either way, the rugged and inhospitable Qalamoun mountains are now the most strategically important area in Syria. The short-term course of the conflict might well depend on whether or not the government can retake them.

Because of this, for months observers have been predicting a “Battle for Qalamoun”.

Earlier this week, government forces retook the town of Qara, one of the most important parts of Qalamoun from their point of view. It abuts the highway that leads directly to the southern outskirts of the capital Damascus.

The battle over Qara drew even more international attention for the refugee crisis it provoked, with 18,000 Syrians from the area fleeing over the Lebanese border into the town of Arsal over the past few weeks.

So, does the fall of Qara indicate that the “Battle for Qalamoun” has finally begun?

In one sense, it does, because this is the first major regime offensive in the area for some time.

The regime’s success in Qara could fuel more fighting in other parts of Qalamoun, a vast area near the Lebanese border.

On the other hand, it could be observed that the “Battle for Qalamoun” hasn’t begun in the conventional sense, because it never really ended. Fighting at some level has been continuous for more than a year and a half.

The fall of one important town hardly means the regime has retaken the region. Nor does the Qara offensive necessarily mean a broader battle is underway, unless it is intended to be a prolonged, slow and painstaking process of picking off bits of the territory piece by piece. Hizbollah, which is reported to have committed up to 15,000 fighters to the Qalamoun campaign, is said to favour such a piecemeal approach.

However, there are a number of key areas that would require a much greater level of force and probable regime losses than the relatively exposed town of Qara. Halbun, Hosh Arab, the Jubb’adin Hill, and Hared are all fundamental to controlling the territory. Moreover, we are already in late November, and the weather will probably combine with the terrain in favour of defensive guerrilla positions.

So the crucial contest for overall control of Qalamoun is unlikely to be fully joined in the coming months, even if the regime and Hizbollah are planning to retake it inch by inch.

Yet, retake it they must.

If they don’t, they will have to live with a powerful rebel stronghold in a key area that will always threaten to undermine their ability to secure the western corridor leading from the Lebanese border and the Bekaa Valley up to Damascus and far beyond. The stakes are just as high for the rebels. Without Qalamoun, they face being cut off from both Damascus and its surrounding areas, and from portions of Homs.

Without it too they cannot hope to pursue the war against the government in its own strongholds. They would find themselves stuck in what amount to areas the government would like to control, but can ultimately live without.

In brief, if the regime and Hizbollah are eventually able to retake control of Qalamoun in general and all of its strategic locations, the Syrian conflict, at least in its first phase, will produce a decisive victory for the government in all of the major areas it cannot afford to lose. For the rebels, it would be a hard-to-reverse disaster.

As with all things Syrian now, there is an added international dimension to what might otherwise be local battles over small areas.

The day after the fall of Qara, two suicide bombers attacked the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, killing the cultural attaché among many other people and, reportedly, narrowly missing the ambassador himself. That bombing also happened on the eve of renewed Iranian nuclear negotiations. The timing of the attack is unlikely to have been random.

The next day, a pro-Iranian Shiite militia in southern Iraq – sending a message that was, simultaneously, both clear and cryptic – fired at least six mortar rounds into uninhabited areas of Saudi Arabia.

Even if you consider all this as conspiratorial musings or as complete coincidences, it’s hard not to see the Syrian conflict intensifying the region’s sectarian divisions and bitter rivalries, at least as much as these regional divisions and rivalries fuel the fire in Syria.

Sectarian and ideological fault-lines are now running so deep in the Middle East that it’s no longer impossible to imagine rocket fire reverberating so loudly off the hills of Qalamoun that its echoes could heard across the Arab world.

Libya’s second revolution: the uprising against militias

After a massacre of unarmed demonstrators in Tripoli, can public outrage tame the gangsters?

Libya is now in the throes of a second popular uprising. But this time, it is against the militias – all of them parochial and many of them Islamist – that have carved the country into a series of disparate fiefdoms, bullied and blackmailed the weak central government, and, most recently, once again opened fire on unarmed protesters resisting their abuses.

In both Tripoli and Benghazi, the public has made their disgust with these thugs clear, risking life and limb in open demonstrations against them. The question now in Libya is, can the overwhelming majority without guns tame powerful, heavily- armed gangs?

The Libyan militias are fighting over not only power, which is always the cause of political conflict, but, more specifically, money. After the fall of Moammar Qaddafi, initial hopes were that Libya’s under-exploited oil resources could bring a wave of petrodollars into the beleaguered country and finance its rebuilding after more than 40 years of grotesque misrule and a bruising conflict to unseat him.

Instead, Libya’s oil wealth has proven as much a burden as an opportunity, because on top of all of the predictable factors motivating local and ideological militias is the additional battle over the spoils of increased oil production and exports. This same fight over money has also informed a nascent secessionist, or at least radical autonomy, movement in the eastern province based in Benghazi which essentially threatens to split the country in half.

The militias formed the backbone of the forces that successfully overthrew Qaddafi. But, lacking the immediate means to disarm these groups and having inherited virtually no functioning institutions from the former regime, the new government instead sought to placate, accommodate, and incorporate militias into the new governing structures rather than disarming them. The result has been the super-empowerment of these groups, especially in Libya’s major cities.

The central government doesn’t really control the capital, Tripoli. Instead, rival militias, many of them based in other cities and representing distinct parochial and ideological (often Islamist) interests, command and battle over various parts of the city. Rival gangs from Misrata, Zintan, and other towns and areas wage running turf battles over the capital and its major infrastructure.

They have bullied parliament into passing ridiculous, self-defeating political exclusion legislation and engaged in kidnappings of senior officials, assassinations, bombings, and almost every conceivable form of mayhem in pursuit of their narrow self-interests.

Last Friday, militias in Tripoli opened fire on unarmed demonstrators protesting their abuses. At least 43 were killed and hundreds injured.

The public in Tripoli has risen up against the militias, and whatever forces the government has at its disposal are trying to retake control from armed gangs, particularly the Misrata militia. But the sustainability, for now, of such a reassertion of control is highly questionable.

After the deadly attack on the US mission in Benghazi last year, there was a similar popular uprising against militias there. But this was followed by a wave of brutality by armed thugs and return of a condition of de facto anarchy.

Unrest in Libya’s east has even produced a separatist movement calling for either secession or de facto-independence level autonomy, and asserting, at least in theory, control over the oil wealth in that half of the country.

While these declarations have not become an established reality, they draw on decades of resentment from Benghazi and the east against Tripoli and the west, which was seen as unfairly privileged under Qaddafi and which has its own regional and even proto-national identity.

So, what’s at stake is not just the public and disempowered government’s battle against militias and the anarchy they represent, but also the question of law and order and basic governance. Libya’s territorial integrity may ultimately be at risk.

What almost all observers agree on is that if the government is not able to reassert control, at least over the major cities, in the coming year or so, it may be too late for Libya to remain integral. The alternative is a fractured, de facto failed state ruled by warlords and gangsters in disparate fiefdoms, and possibly even a formal split into two parts.

The government clearly has the support of the public, and the United States says it will be training 8,000 Libyan soldiers in Bulgaria in an attempt to bolster the official army.

We have now entered a prolonged battle of wills between the Libyan general public and hyper-empowered, and often extremist, gangsters. As things stand, the thugs basically have the upper hand. But it’s strongly in the interests of the region and the world to support the Libyan people in their second revolution, this time not against an entrenched, centralized dictator, but against highly localized and disparate criminal gangs.

Turkey finds a new solution to Kurdish independence

Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish president of Iraq, has long been known to his supporters by the affectionate nickname, “Mam” (“Uncle”). But with Mr Talabani’s health in question, his long-term rival Masoud Barzani has been making a bid to become the “father” of a prospective, independent Kurdish state.

This was dramatically demonstrated this weekend by Mr Barzani’s extraordinary visit to the Kurdish areas of Turkey. This was at the invitation of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who attended an elaborate series of ceremonies with Mr Barzani.

Even more extraordinary were the statements by the two leaders.

“Long live the brotherhood of Turks and Kurds,” Mr Barzani declared. It is a statement redolent of almost hyperbolic overcompensation, yet also profoundly reflective of the remarkable new political realities.

For his part, Mr Erdogan crossed a massive Turkish political taboo by referring openly to “Kurdistan”. None of this would have been conceivable a few years ago.

Both Mr Barzani and Mr Erdogan have very clear motives in embracing each other in this almost surreal public display of mutual affection.

Mr Erdogan was essentially electioneering, in a long-term bid to become Turkey’s next president. He needs all the help he can get. Simply put, Mr Erdogan needs as many Kurds as possible not to vote for his opponents in the Peace and Democracy Party in 2014 local elections.

But broader Turkish national policy was also at work in the invitation for Mr Barzani to visit Diyarbakir.

Turkey has been trying to balance several difficult relationships in which the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), led by Mr Barzani, is a crucial hinge. Turkey has been trying to repair relations with the Shiite-led Iraqi government in Baghdad, and has been easing off from its formerly categorical commitment to the overthrow of Bashar Al Assad in Syria. So Turkey needs to balance the overture to Baghdad with an equally strong outreach to Erbil.

Both sides are also eyeing lucrative new contracts to export oil and gas from the KRG region through Turkey, although such independent agreements irk Baghdad. Turkey says it won’t interfere in the contentious arguments about how Iraqis divvy up the revenues on their side.

The stakes are even higher for Mr Barzani. He sees a clear path to Kurdish independence, since even the mainstream Iraqi Shiite parties now see this as useful to their purposes. But the mutuality of interests between the KRG and Mr Barzani, on the one hand, and Turkey and Mr Erdogan on the other, depend entirely on the new Kurdish entity not appearing to threaten Turkish control of Kurdish regions within Turkey.

Enter Mr Barzani’s primary rival for Kurdish transnational leadership at the moment, jailed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan. The crux of the feud between the two rivals, which has now boiled over into overt hostility, hinges on the emergence of autonomous Kurdish regions in northern Syria and a stalemated peace negotiation between Turkey and the PKK.

Since 1978, the PKK has fought a brutal battle for Kurdish independence in large sections of Turkey, and is considered a terrorist organisation by many countries.

The emergence of Kurdish quasi-autonomous regions in northern Syria at first appeared to be an extraordinary opportunity for Mr Barzani. But as the PKK-Turkey peace talks have stalemated, the behaviour of the PPK-lead alliance in northern Syria has increasingly threatened the all-important links between the KRG and Turkey.

The PKK has recently infuriated Mr Barzani by declaring, from his point of view prematurely, unwisely, and without permission, new self-rule areas. Mr Barzani’s response has been to accuse the PKK of working in league with Mr Al Assad and threatening to intervene with Iraqi Kurdish forces in northern Syria.

Mr Barzani and Öcalan’s personal rivalry only exacerbates a real distinction of interests between the KRG and its close relations with Turkey, and those of the Kurdish populations in Syria and Turkey.

The conundrum is this: if the Kurds are to achieve national independence it will be based largely, if not entirely, in what is now northern Iraq.

Baghdad will not only have to acquiesce to this, it is Turkey, of all states, that will have to serve as its guarantor. And this means that Turkey’s control of its own Kurdish areas cannot be directly threatened by the new Kurdish state.

Öcalan may well see his political future as dependent on fending off the emergence of Mr Barzani as the uncontested Kurdish leader. But Öcalan’s constituency may also fear the consequences of remaining part of Turkey, excluded from the independent Kurdish state.

This is why the peace talks between the PKK and Turkey were so crucial to Mr Barzani, and the recent resumption of PKK attacks against Turkish military targets so alarming to him. It also explains Mr Barzani’s profound opposition to the self-rule announcement in PKK-controlled areas of Syria.

So the Diyarbakir spectacle served the personal interests of both men and the national projects they represent. But Öcalan and the PKK have re-emerged as potent potential spoilers in recent weeks, in both Turkey and Syria.

If Mr Barzani is going to be able to keep talking about “the brotherhood of Kurds and Turks” on his path to statehood, and Mr Erdogan speaking publicly and respectfully about a “Kurdistan,” both parties are realising a way must be found to either make the PKK stakeholders in the deal, or to neutralise them.

Arab-Americans must embrace success over victimhood

Commissars of Arab-American political correctness want the community powerless

Mr. Salameh, a prominent Palestinian-American.

The soul of the Arab-American community is currently being pulled in two separate directions simultaneously.

One is optimistic and uplifting. It wants to assert its full rights as citizens, engage the system, and enthusiastically embrace what the United States has to offer.

The other is bitter and enraged. It celebrates and revels in Arab-American marginalization and self-marginalization. It lashes out at any Arab-American who successfully engages mainstream American society and consciously seeks to suppress the community’s maturation and empowerment.

This oppressive political correctness that insists on sticking resolutely to the fringes is a deliberate tactic by vocal enforcers of communal orthodoxy. They clearly understand their own influence depends on Arab-Americans seeing themselves as powerless.

The commissars can then assume the authority of victimhood, and pretend to speak on behalf of a supposedly besieged and beleaguered people who have no other voice but their shrill cries of rage.

The depths to which the self-appointed Arab-American political thought police, and their minions, will sink was dramatically demonstrated recently on Twitter.

Asa Winstanley, an associate editor at Ali Abunimah’s Electronic Intifada online news publication, angrily condemned the American Task Force on Palestine for honoring a successful Palestinian-American, Ghassan Salameh.

Winstanley tweeted, “ATFP celebrates NSA spying w award 2 Booz Alan CEO: contractor Snowden leaked frm.”

This typical calumnious effort to smear ATFP and a prominent Palestinian-American is vicious and utterly misleading. Salameh was never CEO of Booz Allen Hamilton. He was a Senior Vice President until his retirement in 2011. He never had any form of security clearance and was never involved in any kind of intelligence work. His work was devoted entirely to civilian clients in the transportation sector.

Moreover, the ATFP award to Salameh was in 2010. The suggestion Salameh or the award could, in any way at all, be linked to the Snowden affair is absurd. Winstanley certainly knew this, but didn’t care. He saw a chance to trick gullible people into seeing ATFP as a nefarious organization.

Moreover, the man Winstanley was attacking for his success is a Palestinian refugee born in Lebanon into the most grinding poverty imaginable. After two tragic accidents, his father became blind in both eyes, and his mother eked out the most hardscrabble living possible as a seamstress.

Eventually, and through enormous grit, determination, and pluck, Salameh made it out of his refugee camp in Lebanon and achieved an American education, finally rising to the position of senior vice president at a major American corporation.

In his acceptance speech, Mr. Salameh spoke about how proud he was to be an American and how he was sure that no other country in the world could afford “the son of Palestinian refugees growing up below the poverty line” to achieve such a success.

His success in itself must be derided, because it threatens both the anti-American narrative and the political clout of the extremists behind Winstanley. Worse, he was being honored by ATFP, an organization which, because of its dedication to celebrating Palestinian-American achievements and successes and to working within the American system, is seen as the ultimate threat.

Indeed, in 2010, Mr. Salameh thanked ATFP and its president, Dr. Ziad Asali, for giving him the courage to embrace his Palestinian identity and his American success story simultaneously.

“Six years ago, after 32 years in this country and only after I made Sr. Partner,” he said, “I finally got the courage to publicly admit that I am Palestinian-American. The fear of being labeled [or] of being stereotyped, the fear for my kids, and the fear for my job stopped me from coming out – and for years I was tormented by it.”

“I want to thank Ziad and the work he and many of you are doing to give people like me the courage to be unafraid, to be proud to be Palestinian-American, to be able to openly speak about the suffering of Palestinians, and at the same time be a loyal US citizen who cares deeply about this great country,” he continued.

The enforcers of Arab-American political correctness are consciously and systematically trying to reinforce that fear, not hesitating to savage a Palestinian refugee who achieved American success. They personally and viciously attack any Arab-American who is perceived as embracing the full scope of their US citizenship and successfully engaging with American society. They often do so anonymously, and dishonestly.

Time and again I have met young Arab-Americans who want to engage and succeed culturally and politically in the mainstream, but shrink back because of intimidation by such bullies. But there are growing signs that increasing numbers are fed up with self-imposed marginalization and defeatism.

There is a battle over the Arab-American soul between the hollow satisfaction of angry victimhood versus the real promise of hope and success.

Some allies don’t share US eagerness for deal with Iran

The sudden convergence of foreign ministers in Geneva over the weekend – John Kerry the US secretary of state, his colleagues from Iran, the UK, France, Germany and Russia, plus the EU’s foreign policy chief and a Chinese vice-minister – suggested that an interim agreement on Tehran’s nuclear programme might have been at hand.

But while the US, Iran and others appeared to be nearing an agreement, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius declared mais non.

The French insisted that the agreement being contemplated didn’t go far enough in forcing the Iranians to mothball a heavy-water plutonium reactor near the city of Arak. And they took a tougher line in demanding that Iran not only suspend its production of 20-per-cent-enriched uranium, but convert existing stocks into oxidised forms more difficult to use in nuclear weapons.

With this last-minute intervention, France showed again that under different governments in recent years it has become the most hawkish western nation on matters involving the Middle East and neighbouring areas. France pushed the Libyan intervention, invaded and rescued Mali, was most enthusiastic about strikes against Syrian chemical weapons targets and, on Iran, refused to accept what it bluntly called a “sucker’s deal”.

Notably, it was the French, not the Americans, who publicly insisted that the concerns of the West’s Middle East allies, including the Arabian Peninsula states and Israel, be part of the equation.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, in a brief press conference with the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said tersely that talks would resume in Geneva on November 20.

Ever since the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, launched his “charm offensive” of sustained overtures towards the West, with the overt blessing and support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the prospect of an agreement has become plausible, after many years of stalemate.

French objections aside, it is really the convergence of US and Iranian desires to avoid an even deeper confrontation over the nuclear file that makes an agreement possible at this stage. Both sides have an incentive to buy time, postpone a potential confrontation and leave the most difficult decisions for another day.

US President Barack Obama’s formula – that “Iran will not be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon” – looks straightforward at first glance, but the precise meaning of “possess”, and exactly what constitutes “a nuclear weapon”, would have to be defined in order to glean the precise trigger for an American military intervention.

Still, this policy does commit the US to intervene at some point if Iran persists in attempting to become a nuclear power. But it’s clear that the Obama administration has a strong preference for diplomacy over force.

The palpable urgency on the Iranian side reflects the crippling effect of the latest and toughest sanctions regime on the Iranian economy. Many observers see Mr Rouhani’s strong electoral mandate as a reflection of overwhelming public demand for a serious effort to get these sanctions, especially on banking and oil, lifted or at least eased. Mr Khamenei’s strong backing for Mr Rouhani suggests that even he realises there is a pressing need to achieve this.

This urgency is also the product of the fact that while Mr Rouhani has a mandate and real domestic political momentum to make an overture to the international community and the West, he also faces stiff opposition from Iranian hardliners.

Mr Khamenei’s recent admonition to the Revolutionary Guard that it “does not have a political role”, and the hardliners’ strong backlash against Mr Rouhani’s courting of the West underscore the size of the domestic political challenges he faces.

The Iranians seek an easing of the most pressing sanctions in exchange for easily reversed suspensions of enrichment and other aspects of its programme. France is not the only potential obstacle. Some of what Iran is looking for would require the approval of the US Senate which is, if anything, moving to tighten rather than loosen sanctions.

Even if a “first step” deal is achieved, and buys time for both sides, a broader agreement that essentially ensures Iran will not become a nuclear power would be much more challenging. It would hinge on the number and kind of centrifuges Iran may retain, and other measures that reverse Iranian progress to date.

But this is what American allies – including the United Arab Emirates, which Mr Kerry is scheduled to visit today, and Saudi Arabia – will require if they are to believe the United States has fulfilled its regional responsibilities.

Israel, meanwhile, has said it will not feel bound by any western agreement with Iran.

If the US is seen as simply buying time for itself while leaving its allies vulnerable, they may look for other options. Israel may launch a military strike of its own. And GCC states may look beyond Washington for protection.

Some of America’s traditional friends seem to be concluding, with alarm, that the US is morphing from the guarantor of regional stability to a broker of unsatisfactory and tenuous agreements with regimes that should be confronted or contained. The impression that only last-minute French intervention prevented a rushed and unwise agreement with Iran – even if that impression is unfounded and unjust – exacerbates rather than assuages such fears.

This trend is profoundly unhealthy. It is strongly in the interests of America and its Middle East allies that confidence in US leadership, and mutual respect and loyalty, be revived and strengthened.

The world must act on the Syrian refugee crisis

Jordan and Lebanon cannot continue to shoulder the financial and political burden of the Syrian refugee crisis relatively unaided

A young Syrian refugee boy sells canned tuna and other food items in the Zaatari refugee camp, now Jordan

Jordan, it would seem, has had enough. Amnesty International has accused the Jordanian government of illegally deporting Syrian refugees, and the government has said it has decided to begin forcibly expelling Syrian guest workers. Having passed the point of 600,000 officially registered Syrian refugees, the Jordanians clearly feel they simply cannot bear any more.

They are not alone.

Lebanon, too, has been overwhelmed by the humanitarian disaster unleashed by the Syrian meltdown. Between refugees, migrant workers, and others, it is estimated that Lebanon, a country of 4 million citizens, now also includes 1 million Syrians.

The UN reckons the cost to Jordan last year was $5.3 billion, a budget allocation the Kingdom can scarcely afford. The costs to Lebanon are even greater and its ability to deal with those financial burdens less.

Lebanon has formally complained to the rest of the Arab League that while the multinational group is obsessed with the specifics of the conflict and its outcome, they pay inadequate attention to the refugee question. The unstated or understated complaint is that wealthy Arab states are leaving much poorer countries, specifically Jordan and Lebanon, to deal with the burden insufficiently aided.

In both states there are many registers of the crisis, which includes millions of displaced citizens inside Syria itself as well as the burgeoning refugee populations in neighboring states, also including Turkey and Iraq.

First, there is the obvious financial burden. Particularly with winter coming, the great masses of Syrian refugees are facing a grim situation which is being addressed by the states that harbor them along with multilateral institutions and NGOs. But the correct fear, and indeed the warning of some of the governments most directly responsible and affected, is that, under the current circumstances, the means simply do not exist at present to properly care for these particularly vulnerable victims.

Not only the Arab states, but also the international community as a whole, has a strong moral and legal obligation to help alleviate the suffering of the Syrian refugees in countries like Jordan and Lebanon and, insofar as possible, the massive numbers of internally displaced Syrians who also face a harsh and brutal winter. It’s not true that nothing is being done. But it is true that not enough is being done.

Second, there is the political fallout from the refugee crisis. In both Jordan and Lebanon, there are already significant numbers of Palestinian refugees. And both countries have gone through difficult, and at times bloody, processes of coming to terms with this long-term “foreign” presence. In Lebanon, in particular, the solution has been not only violent, but also systematically discriminatory in an outrageously shameful manner.

The Syrian refugee crisis was and, to a certain extent, is still seen as far more temporary and, in that sense, politically tolerable. Syrian refugees, it was thought, would be able and eager to return to their own country as soon as the conflict was resolved.

The problem is that the Syrian conflict shows no sign of resolution. On the contrary, it appears to be an open-ended war based on a relative stalemate. Indeed, many Syrians who used to go back and forth between Lebanon and Syria, depending on how grim the situation has become in the areas they are fleeing, are now staying in Lebanon for the meantime.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan are beginning to look much more like a semi-permanent feature of the landscape, even though they clearly wish to return to their own country and would do so if possible. But the Syrian war looks set to drag on for years. And that means the refugee crisis will only intensify, possibly exponentially, particularly if sectarian “cleansing” or other atrocities proliferate.

Therefore both Jordan and Lebanon, having borne the burden of large numbers of Palestinian refugees for many decades, are now dealing with what looks like an open-ended Syrian refugee crisis that is transforming the demographic makeup of their societies. In Lebanon, particularly, large numbers of Sunni Muslim Syrian refugees, migrant workers and others – now constituting at least 20% of the country’s total population – alter the delicate sectarian political equation.

The longer they stay – and there is no sign of them leaving en masse and every reason to believe the numbers will simply keep growing, possibly at an accelerated rate – the more they will complicate the already fraught Lebanese political balance.

The international community has a profound moral, legal, and political obligation to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis both in its immediate, humanitarian terms – particularly with the harshness of winter now descending – but also to change the circumstances that have made people who used to happily live in their own country seek wretched refuge in neighboring states that cannot afford, financially or politically, to harbor them for long.

Kerry’s trip to Egypt marks a step in the right direction

Tensions between the United States and some of its traditional Arab allies, most notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have been intensifying rapidly. These strains may prove to be containable, but they are raising troubling though unwarranted doubts about vital strategic partnerships.

Most dramatic have been forthright statements by prominent Saudi officials and commentators, implying that US policy is rewarding its enemies and punishing its friends. There has even been open talk of expanding Saudi Arabia’s strategic partnerships to other global players, to make up for perceived American deficiencies.

Saudi discontent appears to have boiled over regarding Syria and Iran, although a number of other issues have also generated dissatisfaction. The prospect, however remote, of an Iranian-American rapprochement, even a limited one, is a nightmare scenario for Riyadh.

The Saudis were thoroughly taken aback by the reversal of President Barack Obama’s declared decision to launch limited military action against Syrian chemical weapons targets. They had hoped that this, along with aid for the moderate opposition, would prove decisive in the Syrian conflict.

An uncharitable reading of the US acceptance of Russia’s proposal for voluntary Syrian chemical weapons disarmament is that dictators around the world can draw a clear lesson: they can actually regain some measure of diplomatic engagement by dumping sarin gas on defenceless villagers – provided they then renounce such weapons.

Americans, of course, see things entirely differently. US public opinion and policy are now wary of any suggestion that America should use force in a Middle Eastern dispute.

Therefore, when the new Iranian president appears to be offering serious negotiations on the nuclear issue, Americans naturally want to explore the possibility.

Much the same logic applies to Syria. The US “red line” was always about chemical weapons. If the regime’s stockpiles can be disposed of without the use of force, so much the better.

A similar disconnect in perceptions informs the tension between Egypt and the US. After some initial hesitation, the Obama administration backed the popular overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

This alarmed the Saudis, but the US correctly insisted that it needed to be on “the right side of history” by respecting the will of the Egyptian people.

But then, this year, there was also great popular support for the expulsion of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi from the presidency. This raises the question of how the United States could be so sympathetic to Egyptian public opinion with regard to Mr Mubarak’s ejection from office, but so uninterested in it when it came to Mr Morsi.

Like democracy, the “right side of history” cannot be reduced to simply one election.

Though Mr Morsi was elected, there was no mechanism in place to remove him from office, no matter how badly he was abusing power. So Egyptians created their own ad hoc version of what is known in America as the “recall petition”, by which voters in some states can in effect fire sitting state governors and legislators.

Everyone agrees that the improvised Egyptian method was far from ideal, but the majority apparently felt – and still thinks – that it had no choice.

Again, the American perspective is very different. US law prohibits foreign aid to any government installed by a coup. What happened in Egypt was unique but some of its features did seem, to many Americans, to fit a facile definition of a coup.

Americans are essentially insisting that democratic forms, particularly elections, are as important as, if not more important than, strong public opinion. That is why many Americans also fail to recognise why Mr Morsi’s misrule required such drastic action.

So, some US aid and military cooperation programmes have been cut or suspended. But Egyptians are currently experiencing such a surge of hyper-nationalism that they don’t care about this, or even celebrate the negative American response. Both those reactions – American and Egyptian alike – are highly unhelpful.

The US aid cuts seem to back up the conspiracy theories that say Washington actively promoted the Muslim Brotherhood. And if Egyptians think they can really do without the Americans in the long run, they are underestimating the difficulties ahead.

Saudi Arabia and the US need each other even more. The current Iranian charm offensive is enticing but may well prove entirely cosmetic. The tragedy in Syria is only exacerbated by the lack of a coordinated response between the United States and its Arab allies.

Worst of all, as a constellation of instinctively pro-western Arab states begins to consolidate itself based on an axis that includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt and several other key Arab countries, this Arab trend finds itself incongruously at odds with its natural US partner.

John Kerry’s trip to the region beginning in Cairo, and positive comments acknowledging that Egypt is a “partner” to the US and that its impact on the region is “profoundly important”, are a crucial step in the right direction.

One can certainly hope, and perhaps even expect, that the US and its traditional Arab allies will soon realise that they both lack plausible alternatives and are confronting a set of mutual challenges and opportunities in which they have complementary interests.

The strategic partnership at stake here is based on national interests that have not changed. This isn’t merely about oil, money, military cooperation or spare parts, but the strategic future of the Middle East.

Calling into question, let alone casting aside, such a vital strategic partnership because of limited disagreements or sudden misperceptions would be a catastrophic folly on both sides.