Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category

3
Oct

By Vali Nasr

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The international agreement to destroy Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons has put diplomacy back at center stage of American foreign policy. But enforcing America’s “red line” in Syria is only a prelude to dealing with the thicker, redder line around Iran’s nuclear program. Last week’s charm offensive by Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, and his seeming show of flexibility augurs well for a diplomatic resolution.

But America would be naïve to assume that Iran is negotiating from a position of weakness. To the contrary, Iran has come out of the Arab Spring better positioned than any of its regional rivals, and the turmoil in Syria, its ally, has paradoxically strengthened it further. Witness Mr. Rouhani’s statements that distinguished Iran from its Arab neighbors and asserted that it was uniquely positioned to broker a resolution.

Over the past five years America has thought that only an Iran weakened by economic sanctions would agree to a nuclear deal. Iran’s economy is indeed in dire straits, which helps explain the decision by its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to put forward Mr. Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator, as his interlocutor with the West.

It’s also true that Iran has been isolated as the sectarian tenor of the civil war in Syria incensed the country’s largely Sunni population against Shiite Iran and its clients: the governments in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

Iran’s diplomatic flexibility is serious, but should not be mistaken for willingness to surrender.

Iran does not see itself as vanquished. Its political system is still the most steadfast and resilient in the region. It is reveling in a newfound stability on the back of a surprisingly smooth presidential election. There were no street protests in Tehran this year, like those that paralyzed Tehran in 2009, Cairo in 2011 and Istanbul earlier this year. Indeed, Mr. Rouhani’s government, by freeing political prisoners and potentially relaxing controls on the press and social media, is showing its confidence. Read more….

Vali R. Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is a contributing opinion writer.

As published in www.nytimes.com on October 2, 2013 (a version of this op-ed appears in print on October 3, 2013, on page A31 of the New York edition with the headline: America Mustn’t Be Naïve About Iran).

30
Sep

By Robin Wright

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How 5 Countries Could Become 14

The map of the modern Middle East, a political and economic pivot in the international order, is in tatters. Syria’s ruinous war is the turning point. But the centrifugal forces of rival beliefs, tribes and ethnicities — empowered by unintended consequences of the Arab Spring — are also pulling apart a region defined by European colonial powers a century ago and defended by Arab autocrats ever since.

A different map would be a strategic game changer for just about everybody, potentially reconfiguring alliances, security challenges, trade and energy flows for much of the world, too.

Syria’s prime location and muscle make it the strategic center of the Middle East. But it is a complex country, rich in religious and ethnic variety, and therefore fragile. After independence, Syria reeled from more than a half-dozen coups between 1949 and 1970, when the Assad dynasty seized full control. Now, after 30 months of bloodletting, diversity has turned deadly, killing both people and country. Syria has crumbled into three identifiable regions, each with its own flag and security forces. A different future is taking shape: a narrow statelet along a corridor from the south through Damascus, Homs and Hama to the northern Mediterranean coast controlled by the Assads’ minority Alawite sect. In the north, a small Kurdistan, largely autonomous since mid-2012. The biggest chunk is the Sunni-dominated heartland.

Syria’s unraveling would set precedents for the region, beginning next door. Until now, Iraq resisted falling apart because of foreign pressure, regional fear of going it alone and oil wealth that bought loyalty, at least on paper. But Syria is now sucking Iraq into its maelstrom.

“The battlefields are merging,” the United Nations envoy Martin Kobler told the Security Council in July. “Iraq is the fault line between the Shia and the Sunni world and everything which happens in Syria, of course, has repercussions on the political landscape in Iraq.”

Over time, Iraq’s Sunni minority — notably in western Anbar Province, site of anti-government protests — may feel more commonality with eastern Syria’s Sunni majority. Tribal ties and smuggling span the border. Together, they could form a de facto or formal Sunnistan. Iraq’s south would effectively become Shiitestan, although separation is not likely to be that neat. Read more…

As published in www.nytimes.com on September 28, 2013 (a version of this op-ed appears in print on September 29, 2013, on page SR7 of the New York edition with the headline: Imagining a Remapped Middle East).

24
Sep

By Faezeh Samanian

Gender discrimination is still an issue, especially in high office, but progress is being made.

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Nearly 35 years after the Islamic Revolution, gender discrimination is still a challenging issue for Iran. On the one hand, the situation for Iranian women has improved considerably in many respects under the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). On the other, there is a clear and seemingly impregnable ceiling for women in administrative and government positions.

Iranian Women Under the Islamic Republic

In some ways, women have enjoyed significant gains under the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nowhere is this more true than in education. In 1976, on the eve of the Revolution, the female literacy rate was a mere 35 percent. Despite the turmoil of the revolution and the imposed war with Iraq, by 1986 this rate had risen to 52 percent. Today, Iranian girls between the ages of 15 and 24 enjoy near universal literacy.

These gains are also reflected in education levels, which have greatly improved as part of the IRI’s commitment to providing universal education. For example, the female enrollment rate for primary education institutions is actually higher than it is for males. Women also graduate from their primary education programs at the same rate as their male counterparts. And despite new restrictions on what they can study, Iranian women are also strong participants in secondary education, with the female general enrollment rate in secondary education about 86 percent of the male rate.

In many ways, the high female education rate also extends to employment, especially since 1992 when the High Council of the Cultural Revolution adopted a new set of employment policies for women. Although women are unemployed at a rate of roughly twice that of men, one-third of doctors, 60 percent of civil servants, and 80 percent of teachers in Iran are women, according to the British historian Michael Axworthy.

One area where Iranian women continue to face clear obstacles is in the upper reaches of the Iranian government. For example, around 30 women signed up to run for president earlier this year, but the Guardian Council – Iran’s constitutional watchdog – rejected their candidacies based solely on gender. As Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdii, a conservative cleric and member of the Guardian Council explained at the time, the “law does not approve” of women running for president. Read more…

As published by The Diplomat on September 22, 2013.

17
Sep

Europe cannot decide the course of the Arab spring, but it still matters

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After the butchering of soldiers in the first world war and of civilians in the second, one should not be too hard on Europeans—especially Germans—for losing their love of killing. Post-war Europe is, increasingly, past wars. To judge from the parliamentary vote in Britain and the debate in France over military action in Syria, even the more martial countries are now less warlike. Yet pacifism can be too much of a good thing. When news of the chemical-weapons attacks in Syria broke on August 21st, European foreign ministers were holding an emergency meeting in Brussels. The gassing of civilians was barely discussed; the topic of the day was the military coup in Egypt. Eurocrats claimed that information was too scant; cynics said many ministers wanted to ignore the horror lest they were forced to act.

The European Union only formally got around to Syria on September 7th, at a long-planned meeting in Vilnius, after an embarrassing flip-flop by Germany. The day before the Germans had refused to sign a declaration by Western leaders at the G20 summit demanding “a strong international response”. They reversed course when a softer version, with an exhortation for UN action and peace talks, was agreed on in Vilnius. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, clearly did not want a repeat of 2011, when she was isolated among Western leaders in rejecting military intervention in Libya. But nor did she want, just before a German election, to allow the Social Democrats to repeat their feat of 2002, when Gerhard Schröder came from behind to win the election partly by strongly opposing military intervention in Iraq. The odd thing is that nobody has even asked Germany, or most other Europeans, to take part in strikes against Syria. Only Britain and France have the wherewithal to fire cruise missiles from a safe distance. There was no pressure to arm the rebels, a cause of previous divisions. Yet still the Europeans havered.

All of which raises questions about Europe’s declared wish to be a “global player”. The Arab world is where the EU should make its influence felt. Thanks to its growing energy independence America may one day feel less burdened by the region. Not so Europe: the Middle East is next door. France and Britain took the lead in Libya (with much American help). But for Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe, a think-tank in Brussels, the vacillation over the chemical attacks in Syria shows that “the Europeans have never been able to get out of the passenger seat to become the driver—and silently they are quite happy with that.”

For decades the Middle East has been a region where, as an old cliché puts it, “America plays, Europe pays”. This remains true in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The EU is a huge financial supporter of the Palestinian Authority. But it was the Americans who got the two sides to start talking again. Now the EU stands accused by Israel of prejudging the talks by issuing formal guidelines to prevent any funding of projects in territories that were occupied by Israel in 1967. Read more…

As published in www.economist.com on September 14, 2013 (from the print edition).

16
Sep

By William J. Broad and David E. Sanger

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Workers under the supervision of United Nations inspectors in 1996 destroyed growth media that could be used to produce biological weapons in Iraq.

When Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi had to convince the world 10 years ago that he was serious about giving up his chemical weapons, he dragged warheads and bombs into the desert and flattened them with bulldozers.

When Saddam Hussein, defeated in the Persian Gulf war of 1991, had to demonstrate that he was giving up his chemical arsenal, Iraqis protected by little more than tattered cloths over their faces poured some of the agents into ditches and set them on fire — to the shock of inspectors watching in heavy “moon suits.”

Weapons experts and diplomats say that if President Bashar al-Assad is serious about complying with the landmark agreement announced in Geneva on Saturday, he will have to take similarly dramatic action in the coming weeks. Anything short of an immediate demonstration of willingness, they say, will be a sign that Mr. Assad is seeking to drag out the process, betting that time is on his side as memories fade of the attack that is said to have killed more than 1,400 people and prompted a military standoff with the United States.

The benchmarks laid out in the Geneva agreement seek to capitalize on the momentum by imposing quick deadlines, including a requirement that Syria submit a complete list of its chemical weapons, and storage and production facilities within a week. The agreement also requires “immediate and unfettered” access to chemical weapons sites by international inspectors.

The agreement calls for the destruction of chemical agent mixing equipment by November and, perhaps most ambitious, for Syria to completely rid itself of chemical weapons and production facilities in less than a year, a timetable that would set a speed record and one that many experts doubt could be completed even with Syria’s full cooperation.

Experts say speed is of the essence.

“You have a very limited time to do as much as you can with maximum political support,” said David A. Kay, who led major efforts in the 1990s to find and destroy Iraq’s unconventional arms. “The political support will start to erode. The people you’re inspecting will get tired. So you want to do as much as you can, as quickly as you can.” Read more…

As published in www.nytimes.com on September 14, 2013 (a version of this article appears in print on September 15, 2013, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: If History Is Any Measure, the Clock Is Ticking).

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