Saturday, January 21, 2012

Say we love Israel and get reelected

A US congressman, who wanted to remain anonymous, told me last year during his unofficial trip to Istanbul that American national interests are what Congress decides. Now, given the fact that, to put in famous American writer Mark Twain's words, "suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself," he would most likely take his words back. Imagine a country where it is necessary for officials of another country to glorify your president to get re-elected. Take a look at this clip and you will understand how hard American Congressmen and the President are working to look good to Israeli lobby.

What is the final blow in Syria?

Amid tandem failed attempts of diplomatic overtures to end 10-month killings in Syria, it is now everyone’s question these days what to do next with Syria.

There is no Gaddafi-prepares-massacring-Benghazi type moment in Syria that could unleash some outrage among Western powers to reconsider options to end the violence and bloodshed in Syria. Recent reports indicate that the Arab League and Syria agreed to extend the mission of Arab monitors, whose presence have only bolstered and motivated protesters but didn’t spur Assad from refraining killing. This will help Assad buy more time.

But the clock is not ticking in favor of Assad. There is no need to expect a “moment” that will spark a reaction from neighboring or Western countries. There is also no need to consider what final blow could be that would bring down the Assad regime. Current spate of unceasing killings is already bringing the regime down. But maintaining this momentum is important.

In the case of Iran's nuclear standoff, the Western powers, particularly Israel, raise their voice that Iran is nearing to nuclear weapons capability and that either urgent diplomacy or a military strike needs to be undertaken to reset what Iran has started. But in the case of Syria, although it is sad and horrible to see that civilians are being killed daily, Assad is not coming to a point that will secure his seat. The idea of containment seems to be the best option in Syria.

No one in 1980s predicted that the colossal communism empire will collapse in 1989-91 and to be honest, George H. W. Bush must not take credit for such an outcome. The collapse of the Soviet Union was thanks to carefully conducted containment that at the end made the gigantic empire history. If China continued with its hardline position after Cultural Revolution or even historic Tiananmen massacre, its demise would also be inevitable. Recent glaring examples would be the fall of Gaddafi’s Tripoli in August last year and fall of Saddam’s Baghdad in 2003. No one was expecting that the seizure of these capitals would be that easy; as a matter of fact, it was not. The primary reason that made takeover of these cities seem easy was fighting that preceded the “final blow.”

It becomes hard for countries to stick to a certain position for a long time especially if the status-quo is not favorable in an ever-shifting milieu.

The same situation could be applied on Syria, too. The protests and unfortunately violence are now nearing to the second biggest city Aleppo and capital Damascus. It is more than clear that Assad will not be able to hold on to power for long and time is what I would call a “gradual final blow” to his dynasty.

Friday, January 13, 2012

How worse Iran-West nuclear diplomacy could get?

It couldn’t be better time to ask both Iran and Western powers this question: Do you really want to talk?

Latest acts from both sides show that even they don’t know what the answer to this question is. International diplomacy abhors uncertainty and no matter what type of government rules a nation, states want a stable authority that it can rely on its words. Unfortunately, neither Iran nor the Western decision-making machine is closer to that.

Whenever these two sides want to talk, there comes an incident that derails these nuclear negotiations and deepen already high running mistrust between the two nations. Trita Parsi here explains how in the past the West scuttled nuclear talks and downplayed Tehran declaration Turkey and Brazil facilitated in 2010, a move Turkey said opened a window of opportunity to diplomacy if it did not entirely address Western concerns.

On Wednesday, an Iranian nuclear scientist was killed in a daylight assassination in Tehran, a development that most likely aimed at sabotaging nuclear talks the sides scheduled to have in seven weeks in Istanbul. The professor was reportedly working in Iran’s largest uranium enrichment facility. Here is the picture: International Atomic Energy Agency confirms that Iran has started enriching uranium in a hidden underground bunker to 20 percent, a level where it can be quickly upgraded for use in a nuclear weapon. A day later, a nuclear scientist working in the uranium enrichment facility is killed.

Flashback to past couple of days, Iran and West could be seen in unprecedented wrangling, issuing threats and trading blames. The planned nuclear talks in Istanbul also come at a time when the EU prepares to ban importing Iran’s oil exports. Iran considers this casus belli, a cause of war and vows to shut down Strait of Hormuz to disrupt 35 percent of world’s oil supply, which in effect will bring world economies upside down.

Americans insist that “two-track Iran policy” – pressure and diplomacy – could work but I can’t help but surprise how talks could yield constructive results when both sides try to undermine each other.

Besides Iran’s bad record of reneging its promise in international affairs, Iran’s internal political rift and Israel will make nuclear talks more complicated than ever.

Several hardliner officials of Iran issued threats to Turkey weeks earlier yet Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi refused to associate his administration with those remarks. Similarly, some circles in Iran’s ruling establishment wanted to botch UK’s embassy in Tehran but later the Iranian foreign minister acknowledged that the incident was not welcomed. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the Iranian government to pursue independent foreign policy and uncertainty over Tehran will further consume credibility of Iran in the eyes of the Western powers for its flips and flops.

In the Western camp, while the US administration and the EU are content with almost crippling sanctions on Iran, Israel is the short-tempered and uncompromising child. Assassination of scientists and diluting nuclear talks between Iran and the Western powers are effective ways to bury diplomatic efforts both sides rarely revive. And Israel is very good at that.

For serious diplomacy on Iran, there must be firm, stable positions on both sides and the promise of diplomacy will fail to walk its talk without it.  

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Can Turkey stop Sunni-Shiite, Iran-Arab Cold War?

Graffiti reads: "Down with Iran" outside the office of Bahraini opposition party in Manama.

The answer is yes. The more challenging question is how Turkey is planning to realize it.

Today, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu spoke before a group of smart people that Turkey is determined to stop Sunni-Shiite, Iran-Arab Cold War in the Middle East and will not allow such a scenario to play out. It raised many questions, the most important of them being how Turkey is going to realize what it vows. 

Davutoğlu’s fears illustrated a prevailing sense of concerns reigned in Ankara, which saw itself standing in equal distance to all sects in the Middle East so far and worried over situation in Syria and growing influence of Iran in Baghdad.

Davutoğlu, in an interview with Turkish TV network Habertürk on Friday night, said the most effective way in averting potentially devastating sectarian strife is to talk. He said this is the reason why he visited Iran earlier this week and why his whirlwind telephone diplomacy is vital. It would be naive of him to expect that mere dialogue and political consultations will help in anyway but talking is a good way to reduce uncertainties and unpredictable outcomes.  Robert Keohane speaks here in some detail how institutionalizing a set of rules will reduce uncertainties.

I cheer when states start making threatening remarks and I worry more if countries assure themselves of friendship when obviously something wrong is going on between them. Miscalculation of Saddam when he invaded Kuwait in 1991 was caused by American diplomat April Glaspie, who failed to give Saddam a clear warning that the US is determined to protect its ally Kuwait if Iraq ever decides to invade the tiny Gulf country. While lack of communication and hence miscalculation between Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Soviet Union led to a devastating world war, the same set of causes could also be brought as an example to explain August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia.

Turkish foreign minister is thus pursuing a correct strategy in engaging with countries in its vicinity to reduce uncertainities – a key ingredient for any foreign policy decision-making. The question if one can really rely on Iran’s messages is a separate topic.

There are three ways that Turkey can end Arab-Iran or Sunni-Shiite rivalry in the region. First, it could ally with Arab countries and the United States to contain expanding Iran and its proxies in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Second, it could mediate between Arabs and Iran to end sabre-rattling in Gulf and offer alternative means to diplomacy to at least delay bloody confrontations. The third option is to find a way to eliminate factors that make sects politicized.
The third option seems particularly challenging, because we are talking about countries such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon where one group or another suppressed and persecuted its rival for decades. It is most of the time hard to build mutual trust and mitigate factors that cause hatred and politicization of sects.

Today’s Zaman columnist Gökhan Bacık explained in some detail in his column how Sunni-Shiite divide – not even traditionally religious concepts – is rallied behind political ideologies. He says Sunni-Shiite split refers to the different, and sometimes even opposite, political positions assumed by states like Turkey, Iran, Syria and Lebanon.

Brewing sectarian strife in the Middle East is not unprecedented. Europe witnessed similar bloody clashes in early 17th century when hundreds of thousands of people killed. The cure then was establishing nation-states and cutting ties with papacy. Creating national and state identities is key in getting rid of seeing any particular sect as a political party. An idea that a state identity is more sacrosanct than religious loyalties healed bleeding sectarian wars in Europe. Iraq and Lebanon, blessed with Shiites and Sunnis, seem to have difficult times to build Lebanese and Iraqi identities. Hence Iran can easily exploit them.

The reason why Hezbollah relies more on Iran than Beirut and the reason why Iraqi Shiites consider Iran more trustworthy than their Sunni fellow citizens is because they are preoccupied with the idea that Sunnis could persecute them if left alone.

Pushing for more democracy in these countries and convincing Shiites and Sunnis that participation in political processes is an effective way in sheltering from persecution is what Turkey ought to do. This will take some time and, inevitably, blood. However, to my mind, I can hardly see any other option that could be less bloody and shortcut to the solution.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Revolutions hardly contagious, including Arab ones

Jasmine revolution in Tunisia had been touted as a potentially very significant key in unleashing similar mass uprisings in other Arab lands ruled by iron fists for decades and revolutionaries marked the first anniversary of Mohamed Bouazizi's setting himself on fire last month in an apparent reference to his role in sparking upheavals across the Arab states.

Foreign Policy blogger Stephen M. Walt wrote a post a year ago shortly after Tunisian revolution, claiming that Tunisian revolution won’t spread because these kind of revolutionary cascade is rare in history, similar contagious revolutions such as post-French revolution coups, 1989 communist revolutions have foreign elements involved like French army and Soviet threats of invasion. He also added that a rising revolutionary wave often depends on very particular preferences which he doubted are the same with preferences of Tunisian revolutionaries. He noted that Tunisian revolution is a warning signal to other Arab autocrats to be vigilant in curbing any signs of emerging uprisings and that possible hardships that could follow Tunisian revolution may not be attractive to Arabs elsewhere.

He later regretted yet not embarrassed by his post after Egypt’s leader Hosni Mubarak fell and uprisings spread to Yemen and Libya. He wrote a defense, claiming that revolutionary events are inherently hard to forecast, citing Timur Kuran's study and underlined that he didn’t say contagion was impossible, “just unlikely.”

As events clearly indicate, it is hard to claim that Tunisian revolution did not set off upheaval elsewhere but it is still a valid argument to assert that revolutions rarely spread.

Walt was correct in suggesting that Tunisian revolution won’t spread and what we witness today is not cascade of revolutions bringing down leaders of autocracies but just only increasing tide of unrest sweeping across the Middle East. Some countries such as Jordan and Morocco, partially successfully addressed demands of change by reforms. Some chose to massacre his own people and this includes Libyan and Syrian authorities. In Egypt, Mubarak had to leave to save his regime and latest developments make it increasingly clear that Egyptian revolution in fact never took place and that former Mubarak-era ministers and army are still ruling the country. Mubarak’s departure only delayed any possible real revolution in Egypt.

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh skillfully made any type of maneuvers he knows to fool Gulf and Western countries to keep his seat secured. Leaders brutally cracked down on protests in Algeria, Bahrain, Kuwait and Iran. Early signs of uprising in Saudi Arabia, mainly led by Shiite minority, were prevented as King Abdullah promised billions of dollars of public spending.

Libyan revolutionaries were unable to topple their strong leader and Gaddafi was ousted literally by air invasion, thanks to the military support of NATO.

Only in Tunisia, with its natural dynamics, people got rid of Tunisia’s decrepit leader and his corrupt regime. Leaders of other countries, going through the instability and unrest, skillfully delayed any possible revolutions. If not Tunisia’s revolution, may be a surprise uprising in Syria or Yemen would be make it easier to tumble down those regimes.