donderdag 16 april 2015

So much for free speech: Southampton University and the pro-Israel lobby

Whose voices are we hearing? Flickr/Farrukh. Some rights reserved.
by Hilary Aked

If our universities can’t stand up to the Israel lobby and uphold free speech, how will the international community ever stand up to the state of Israel and uphold international law?

An academic conference, International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism, was due to start this Friday but the University of Southampton - citing spurious ‘health and safety’ concerns - cancelled it, following intense pressure from the pro-Israel lobby. Despite many academics writing to the university expressing their dismay and a petition which garnered wide public support, an application at the High Court yesterday denied organisers a judicial review and the conference has now been postponed indefinitely. While an outrageous affront to freedom of speech, Southampton’s capitulation to external pressure is not hugely surprising. The Israel lobby has a long history of censorship, including in universities, which are no longer bastions of free speech.

In early March a UC Berkeley conference called Censoring Palestine at the University: Free Speech and Academic Freedom at a Crossroads was convened to discuss the apparent escalation in this repressive trend, in the US and beyond. It’s a phenomenon that has occurred in response to heightened criticism of Israel which in turn is a result of the moral outrage generated by three successive Gaza ‘wars’ in six years – wars, Richard Falk observed at Berkeley, better characterised as massacres, so one-sided was the slaughter.

This article seeks to answer two key questions: why is it that universities can be bullied into silence by pro-Israel groups? And why is it that Israel can’t stand to be criticised? In the process it offers a critique not only of Israel and Zionism but also of the neoliberal university.

Palestine/Israel on campus: why universities matter

Universities have long been a key site of concern for the pro-Israel lobby. The idea that the ‘leaders of tomorrow’ receive their education in environments hostile to Israel is compounded by the fear that attitudes acquired in this formative period often persist throughout life. On top of this, trends in the academy are seen as prescient of the future direction of society as a whole. And, just as throughout history progressive movements have emanated from campuses, universities are witnessing a surge Palestine solidarity activism.

Losing the argument at the grassroots, one relatively sophisticated response to this from Israel-advocates has been to facilitate the expansion of ‘Israel studies’. As a means to influence the ideological environment it is a long term strategy and it would be wrong to suggest every academic or student in the field is a mere shill. However, both Israeli think tank the Re’ut Institute and prominent Zionist Lord Weidenfeld have openly stated that supporting the expansion of Israel studies courses is, in their minds at least, one prong of a broader strategy to counter anti-Israel attitudes. Weidenfeld was one of the backers of Israel studies at Sussex University while the subject has been introduced at the universities of Manchester, Oxford and SOAS with the financial support of Trevor Pears, a major donor to the Tory party and Conservative Friends of Israel. In fact a whole institute – the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London - a collaborative project between several universities including KCL and Israel’s Interdisciplinary Centre Herzliya was originally conceived as a project explicitly intended to challenge the academic boycott by funder Henry Sweetbaum, who had first offered the money to the LSE.

However, much cruder ways of promoting Zionist perspectives – and silencing pro-Palestinian ones – are also vigorously being pursued. In The Idea of Israel, Ilan Pappe has described this phenomenon in Israel itself, where groups like Im Tirzu, standard-bearer for the hard-right ‘neo-Zionism’ that increasingly dominates centres of power in the country, hound dissenting academics like him out of universities. Scholars who have defended Palestinian rights have faced persecution in many other countries too. South African anti-apartheid and gender justice activist Farid Esask was recently banned from speaking at several French universities about Palestinian rights, on the basis of false charges of anti-Semitism. For daring to back boycott as a legitimate tool to put pressure on Israel, Australian academic Jake Lynch faced a law suit waged by proxy by Shurat HaDin, an Israeli law firm known to have enjoyed a close relationship with Israeli intelligence.

In the United States Rabab Abdulhadi was the latest professor to be singled out for demonization by the AMCHA Initiative but long lists of scholars have found themselves on the blacklists of Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum (MEF). Student Rights, a similar campus monitoring body in the UK, has both undermined student activism and drawn up a dossier criticising LSE academics who defend Palestinians’ rights. (Notably, Student Rights is a front for the Henry Jackson Society, a neoconservative think tank which has received funding from the Abstraction Fund. It is thus tied in to the same funding networks as Campus Watch, since MEF also gets most of its money from Abstraction, and both are good examples of what Dr. Deborah Gordon has called ‘the dove-tailing of professional Islamophobia and efforts to counter the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement’). Given these McCarthyist witch-hunts, it is no surprise that Prof. Lisa Rofel, speaking at Berkeley, suggested that Palestine/Israel is today what critiquing capitalism was during the Cold War.

These are just a few recent examples. I’ve not mentioned high profile cases like those of Norman Finkelstein or Steven Salaita, or less well known but highly punitive cases in which student activists have been targeted, such as the Irvine 11. Lower level administrative harassment, from creating extra layers of bureaucracy to monitoring and over-policing, is a common experience of student activists, especially Muslim students advocating for Palestine (Imperial for instance, told FOSIS at the last minute that its recent Palestine conference could not be a public event, forcing them to change venue.) Increasingly, attacks are made online anonymously, via websites like which seeks to demonises Students for Justice in Palestine in the U.S.

Mindful, however, that smears can sometimes backfire, some pro-Israel groups, such as The David Project, an organisation dedicated to promoting Israel on U.S. campuses, has begun stressing softer, normalising, techniques: its Latte Initiative, for example, emphasised building relationships with key ‘influencers’ on campus, as Ali Abunimah has noted. When these strategies fail, though, pro-Israel groups are very willing to turn to so-called ‘lawfare’ initiatives. In the U.S. there has been at least one lawsuit and four complaints under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act 1964, an attempt to criminalise activism for Palestinian human rights. In the U.K., Ronnie Fraser notoriously took the lecturers union, UCU, to an employment tribunal, alleging ‘harassment’. Even when unsuccessful, as all these cases have been, they may still engender future self-censorship by exercising a chilling effect.

The power structure shaping the boundaries of acceptable debate

Any discussion of ‘free speech’ and ‘censorship’ without reference to questions of power is meaningless. The critical feature of the Southampton case was the extraordinary pressure the university came on from above. This included interventions by four Conservative politicians: a letter from ex-treasury minister Mark Hoban MP to university vice chancellor Don Nutbeam, critical comments from Lord Leigh and Caroline Nokes MP and – most alarmingly – a statement from Communities Minister Eric Pickles. Besides the worrying precedent set for academic freedom by government interference in the affairs of an independent higher education institution, this illustrates the power structure shaping what can and cannot be said about Palestine/Israel. At the recent ‘We Believe in Israel’ conference both Michael Gove and Michael Dugher spoke, proudly declaring themselves Zionists. Numerous other frontbenchers from both main parties count themselves active supporters of Israel while a wider pool of elites can be relied upon to line up as allies of the pro-Israel lobby in times of crisis.

So when KCL students voted to back a boycott of Israel, the country’s supporters, notably members of StandWithUs - a transnational body which has received funding from the Israeli government - were able to elicit a statement from London mayor Boris Johnson which they used to undermine the democratic will of the student body. In the US, political theorist Corey Robin noted the same phenomenon when a host of university presidents lined up to condemn the American Studies Association vote to boycott Israel, dubbing it ‘a very elite backlash’. In the UK, before becoming head of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross wrote regularly for the Jerusalem Post, which could have influenced the body’s willingness to advise student unions (which are registered charities) against taking ‘partisan’ positions on this global justice issue.

This is not to say that the Palestinians do not have high profile supporters, for there are indeed some; Baroness Jenny Tongue is one prominent example. However, the majority of the political class are reflexively Zionist while the Palestinians draw most of their support in parliament from backbenchers. It’s also clear that ordinary people overwhelming reject Israel’s belligerence, for – as the chair of pro-Israel lobby group BICOM noted with dismay – last summer around ten times as many letters to MPs were sent supporting the Palestinians than supporting Israel. Their voices, of course, count for less - which is why Spinwatch’s report on BICOM argued that the PR body has concentrated on shoring up elite consensus.

Precisely because concepts like freedom of speech cannot be separated from questions of power, it is crucial to understand the pro-Israel lobby in context. Pro-Israel groups like BICOM, the Board of Deputies (BOD) and the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) enjoy access to elites that advocates of Palestinian rights cannot compete with. The same goes for resources: BICOM, for instance, is funded by billionaire Poju Zabludowicz. This all translates into considerable political influence at the top. (Questions about whether the less than democratic JLC can be said to represent the Jewish community and whether it or the BOD should using its power to lobby for Israel when many Jews do not support Israel’s policies remain unanswered).

One of the most astonishing facts about the Southampton case was a statement by the conference organisers which revealed that the university vice chancellor had not agreed to meet with them, while it was widely reported he had at least one meeting with external pro-Israel groups, including the BOD and JLC, who were calling for the conference to be shut down. (Ben White has noted the hypocrisy of this since the same groups cite ‘academic freedom’ to argue against boycotts, a neat illustration of the way concepts like free speech are deployed strategically rather than applied consistently). Perhaps we should not be surprised, given that Israeli government ministers have directly asked British government ministers to put pressure on universities over support for Palestinians on campus – a fact which might also explain the presence, at a separate meeting about the Southampton conference that included the BOD and four vice-chancellors from Universities UK, of Britain’s ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould.

Neoliberalisation and the counter-extremism agenda

As well as the huge clout of pro-Israel lobby groups, the reason conference organisers were correct to recognise that the topic they proposed to discuss had been marginalised has much to do with the government and its agenda for universities – the twin pillars of neoliberalism and counter-extremism.

As state-funding is being withdrawn the increased power of external donors allows the likes of Weidenfeld and Pears to shape the syllabus by offering universities pots of money to fund Israel Studies. The threats by ‘at least two major patrons’ of Southampton University, reported to be ‘considering withdrawing their financial support’ because of the conference may well have made up the vice chancellor’s mind. After all, the same formula worked, outside of the university context, at the Tricycle theatre. Meanwhile, the huge emphasis on employability means the university was no doubt alarmed by lawyer Mark Lewis’s threat to look ‘unfavourably’ at CVs sent by Southampton graduates. More generally, the prospect of graduating with 50 grand debt after steady increases in fees likely also acts as a disincentive for students to be politically active - though many still are.

But if neoliberal environments, as universities are fast becoming, are already conducive to depoliticisation, this is especially so where they meet ‘anti-extremism’ discourses of the war on terror. The government’s Prevent policy includes universities in a range of civil society arenas in which it says ‘extremism’ need to be combatted. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, which academics warned was a threat to free speech before it was passed in February 2015, made preventing the spread of extremism a statutory duty on universities. This came about in part because a clutch of right wing think tanks such as the Henry Jackson Society (HJS0, aided by the right wing press, have inculcated the idea – despite a distinct lack of compelling evidence – that universities are ‘hotbeds of extremism’. Douglas Murray of the HJS put that very phrase to work in the Daily Express writing about the Southampton conference – also, ludicrously, linking it to the case of Mohammed Emwazi aka ‘Jihadi John’ who merely by virtue of having been to Westminster university, has been seized up on evidence that universities are ‘breeding grounds for terrorists’. A Prevent officer was present at a meeting with Birkbeck university officials just before it pulled out of hosting a conference on Islamophobia in December last year, citing – like Southampton University – concerns about potential protests.

Given this enormous pressure on universities to restrict ‘extremist’ speech it is unsurprising that pro-Israel actors have increasingly tried to push pro-Palestinian speech into this category. They’re helped in this endeavour by the fact that the definition of extremism is extremely broad and vague. The chief constable of Greater Manchester Police has explicitly cited pro-Palestinian demonstrations as an example of police uncertainty about how to operationalise the term, which requires them to decide on the spot what is and what is not ‘extremist’. Indeed the word has travelled so far from any connection to violence that Israeli Ambassador Ron Prosor used it to refer to a peaceful protest against a speech by deputy Israeli ambassador Tayla Lador-Fresher at the University of Manchester in 2010. ‘Extremism is not just running through these places of education – it is galloping’, Prosor declared. This is not mere rhetoric but has consequences for how police apply the law. Greater Manchester Police - the same force whose head later admitted the concept of extremism was unclear - paid a visit to one of the young people involved in that demonstration, soon after the protest, and involuntarily placed him on the Channel programme, as Arun Kundnani documents in his book The Muslims are Coming!

Red lines, Zionist hegemony and ‘delegitimisation’

Supporters of Israel would rather not be seen as censorious. The fact that, at Southampton and elsewhere, they increasingly have to resort to these tactics, suggests a rupture. Despite the massive power imbalance and the structural factors mitigating against it, voices in defence of Palestinian rights are growing increasingly bold. If, as Douglas Murray suggested in the Express, these voices were only those of ‘fringe weirdos’, they could easily be ignored. However, what we are actually witnessing is a mood-shift in the mainstream: thus censorship, as Ben White has observed, is a sign of weakness and insecurity, a desperate attempt to stop a sea change in opinion, not just among serious scholars but also the wider public. The enormous groundswell of popular condemnation of Israel is finally creating fractures in elite support - even in our attenuated British democracy, in which foreign policy in particular is rarely up for debate.

Though Israel’s military might remains supreme – as we saw last summer when it killed more than 2,200 Palestinians in Gaza and destroyed or damaged around 96,000 homes - the ideological aspect of its hegemony is in unprecedented crisis. We are witnessing a slow but profound normative transformation. Because of the effects it has had on the Palestinians, Zionism as a political project has failed to win over hearts and minds. Israel has failed to even maintain the façade of a peace process, making the two state solution patently impossible and inevitably increasing calls for a one state solution, which would entail an end to the Zionist project. However, Colin Leys’ observation, applied to Thatcherism by Tom Mills, equally holds here: ‘for an ideology to be hegemonic, it is not necessary that it be loved. It is merely necessary that it have no serious rival.’ In other words, neutralising the opposition by silencing dissent may yet be enough to ensure Zionist hegemony or at least delay its demise. This insight helps us understand the impulse to censor and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is right: ‘more of this will happen as public opinion shifts towards the Palestinians and their long struggle’.

It is also true, as Richard Falk has pointed out, that censorship is a symptom of the increasing difficulty of defending Israel substantively. If the question were ‘what about LGBT rights?’ or ‘why hasn’t Israel made any medical breakthroughs or technical innovations lately?’, the Israel lobby would have all the answers. But questions about why Israel controls the lives and movements of millions of Palestinians without giving them a vote and has done for nearly fifty years; why Israel has over twenty laws which discriminate against non-Jews; or why Israel continues to build settlements and roads for Jews only in occupied territory; these are harder to answer and pro-Israel forces seem to know that any answers they offer are unconvincing; their best bet is to try to stop the questions being asked. But this strategy is not sustainlable.

Anxiety – panic - about Israel’s international standing intensifies censorship even within pro-Israel circles. A senior member of the Board of Deputies recently stepped down from his post due to what Haaretz called a "ban" on criticising Israel. A few weeks ago the Zionist Federation held an event called "Crossing the line: is public criticism of Israel acceptable?" (No prizes for guessing their answer.) Jewish activists were physically removed from the ‘We Believe in Israel’ conference, testament to a truth Anthony Lerman learnt long ago, that Jewish critics of Israel are often treated most harshly. In 2010 Israeli think tank the Reut Institute, in an influential report, came up with a more sophisticated strategy than outright censorship, namely to ‘drive a wedge’ between ‘critics’ and what they called ‘catalysts of delegitimisation’.

The invented concept of ‘delegitimisation’ was at once intended to distinguish mild criticism of certain Israeli policies, which Reut said should be allowed, on the understanding that it has PR benefits, from types or levels of criticism it wanted to ring-fence outside of ‘acceptable’ debate. The exact location of these red lines is elusive and particularly the more fanatical wing of the pro-Israel lobby will often simply used the term in an attempt  to discredit any criticism of Israel, shrilly accusing everyone from Amnesty to the United Nations of ‘delegitimisation’. But where the University of Southampton conference over-stepped the line into ‘delegitimisation’ was by asking questions about the relationship between Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state to legal, moral, egalitarian and democratic principles. In other words, it dared to interrogate Zionism. The ‘Fair Play Campaign Group’ (whose work is concerned with ‘opposing anti-Zionist activity’) was quick to condemn it.

Luke Akehurst, manager of We Believe in Israel, has claimed he is ‘not in the business of telling people what to say’. Strange then, that elsewhere he has declared that when criticism ‘crosses red lines and becomes inappropriate’ it must be stopped. We can all agree that anti-Semitic speech is unacceptable, which is why it is illegal. But why should questioning Zionism be taboo? This implication was the thrust of much of the lobbying against the Southampton conference: a letter sent at the end of last year said the event appeared to ‘surpass the acceptable’; Richard Falk’s contribution was deemed likely to be ‘beyond the limits of reasonable discussion’. Less freedom of expression then, more compulsory Zionism.

Legitimacy, international law and intellectual integrity

While important, the discursive struggle overlooks the reality on the ground. Israel’s advocates focus on ‘winning the communication battle’ and ‘winning the battle of narrative’ and rarely stray beyond the level of discourse. But Israel’s ongoing colonisation and human rights abuses are all too real. One side of the ‘battle’ is seeking to uphold the very concrete rights of human beings in international law. The other is concerned with insisting upon the abstract ‘rights’ of a nation state: Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’ and ‘right to exist’. Not even the most ardent defenders of the union, in the last days leading up to the Scottish independence referendum, made the claim that the United Kingdom had a ‘right to exist’, regardless of the wishes of the people in it!

Supporters of Israel are trying to win it legitimacy using illegitimate means, of which censorship is only one strand. Instead, it should be acknowledged that states derive their legitimacy from the extent to which they uphold people’s rights - and lose it when they cease to do so. A Southampton-style conference ‘would not be permissible about another country’, claimed Mark Lewis, while Simon Johnson of the JLC asked ‘What other state…is subjected to such critique?’ The claims echo the ‘what-aboutery’ of many defences of Israel but can be answered by history and international law.

Is Israel unique in facing criticism or practicing censorship? No. Opponents of the Indonesian occupation of East Timor faced similar pressures in countries that were allied to Indonesia: ‘In May 1994, then Philippine President Fidel Ramos, bowing to pressure from Jakarta, tried to ban an international conference on East Timor in Manila and blacklisted Ramos-Horta [the Nobel peace Laureate who would later become president of East Timor]. Later that year, Ramos-Horta was made persona non grata in Thailand and banned from entering Bangkok in 1995 to teach at a diplomacy training program at prestigious Thammasat University’ (I am grateful to Professor Stephen Zunes for pointing to this example). Israel is not special. Power always wants to censor its critics.

The special significance of the Southampton conference was its attempt to restore the primacy of international law, and to judge Israel – and measure its legitimacy - by these universal standards, like any other state. But just as the pro-Israel lobby’s free-speech exceptionalism is eroding freedom of speech, Israel’s exceptionalism in its flouting of international law - (it’s impunity has gone on so long that the phrase ‘illegal under international law, but Israel disputes this’ has become a BBC institution) - is undermining the very laws themselves. The Southampton conference blurb observed that sometimes international law can be ‘the very instrument of rationalisation of violence and suffering.’ As if to prove this, Israeli law firm Shurat HaDin will soon hold a conference apparently geared towards re-writing the Geneva Convention, a novel way to bring Israel’s actions in line with international legal principles.

Though the phrase ‘speaking truth to power’ has been overused, the Southampton University case and the wider litmus test of Palestine/Israel, illustrates the real importance of freedom of speech. But if our centres of so-called intellectualism can’t stand up to the Israel lobby and uphold free speech, how will the international community ever stand up to the state of Israel and uphold international law?

Southampton university’s vice chancellor would do well to heed Edward Said’s words, on intellectual integrity and the question of Palestine: ‘Nothing in my mind is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position that you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not want to appear too political, you want to keep a reputation of being balanced, moderate, objective. Your hope is to remain within the responsible mainstream. For an intellectual, these habits of mind are corrupting par excellence.’

Said noted that these behavioural traits are often encountered in connection with ‘one of the toughest of all contemporary issues, Palestine, where fear of speaking out about one of the greatest injustices in modern history has hobbled, blinkered, muzzled many who know the truth and are in a position to serve it’ but concluded that ‘despite the abuse and vilification that any outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights and self-determination earns for him or herself, the truth deserves to be spoken.’

Hilary Aked is a freelance writer and researcher, qualified journalist and doctoral candidate at the University of Bath. She had worked in the Occupied Territories and is researching the pro-Israel lobby in the UK.

This article first appeared on Open Democracy on 15 April 2015

maandag 16 maart 2015

US intensifies pressure on Iran at nuclear talks

Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president, visiting Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran this year.
Photograph: Presidential official handout/EPA

By Peter Symonds

With time running out to reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear programs, the US is intensifying the pressure on Tehran to make substantial concessions in talks this week in Lausanne, Switzerland. In comments yesterday, US Secretary of State John Kerry made clear that the US was prepared to walk away from the negotiating table if Iran does not meet its demands.

Kerry told the media that “important gaps” remain to be resolved prior to the March 31 deadline for key elements of an agreement to be finalised. The aim, he said, “is not just to get any deal, it’s to get the right deal. Time is of the essence, the clock is ticking and important decisions need to be made [by Iran].”

Kerry is due to meet today with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif who plans to travel to Brussels later in the day to meet with his counterparts from Britain, France, Germany and the European Union (EU). The talks in Lausanne will continue tomorrow.

Details of the negotiations leaked to the New York Times indicate that the US is insisting on strict limitations on Iran’s nuclear facilities that would last at least a decade before being eased. Washington’s aim is to guarantee a “break-out” time of at least a year—that is, restrictions to ensure Iran would take 12 months to produce enough fuel for one nuclear weapon.

Tehran has repeatedly declared that it has no plans to build a nuclear arsenal. Moreover, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), all of its uranium enrichment plants, nuclear facilities and stockpiles are already closely monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

According to the New York Times, the US is insisting on a highly intrusive inspection regime beyond the end of the formal agreement, including immediate access to any sites, including military bases, on suspicion of nuclear-related activity. As the NYT noted, this “verification” procedure goes well “beyond the toughest measures [IAEA] inspectors use in any other country.”

The demand highlights Washington’s utter hypocrisy. While demanding that Iran agree to measures far in excess of the requirements of an NPT signatory, the US turns a blind eye to Israel, which has not signed the treaty, and has already manufactured a substantial nuclear arsenal. In the case of India, the US ratified a deal that effectively nullifies the NPT and allows India to keep its stockpile of banned nuclear weapons.

Kerry has also rejected Iran’s demands for the immediate lifting of international sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy by more than halving its oil exports since 2011 and cutting off access to international banking and finance. Official unemployment is at least 13 percent while other estimates put the figure at 20 percent. Annual inflation hit between 50 to 70 percent in mid-2013 before an initial agreement to start talks provided limited sanctions relief. The US is proposing a phrased ending of sanctions.

In Washington, deep fissures have opened up over the nuclear agreement. In an unprecedented move last week, 47 Republican senators sent a letter to Tehran warning that any nuclear agreement could be abrogated by the next president or changed by congressional action. The letter, which followed a unilateral invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to deliver an anti-Iranian tirade to a joint congressional sitting, was an obvious attempt to sabotage the talks and undermine the Obama administration.

Kerry hit back over the weekend. Speaking on CBS, he accused the Republicans of peddling “false information, directly calculated to interfere” in talks and dismissed any suggestion that a deal had already been done. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell shot back yesterday, saying: “The president is about to make what we believe is a very bad deal.”

The US has also begun talks with other permanent members of the UN Security Council—Britain, France, Russia and China—about a resolution that would lift UN sanctions on Iran. Such a step would make it harder for the US congress to obstruct a deal with Iran as many, but not all, of the US and European sanctions are underpinned by existing UN resolutions.

The rancour in the debate points to sharp differences in the American political establishment over a deal with Iran, which has been likened by some analysts to the US rapprochement with China in 1972. While there are obvious differences with the opening up of US-China relations, the talks in Lausanne are not simply about Iran’s nuclear programs. The Obama administration is seeking to enlist Tehran’s assistance in securing Washington’s interests in the Middle East as it intensifies its confrontations with Russia and China.

Kerry indicated yesterday that Washington might consider opening negotiations with Syrian President Bashir al-Assad over the establishment of a transitional regime in Syria—something that Washington has flatly ruled out previously and the US State Department later denied. Kerry, however, did indicate a renewed US diplomatic push to restart talks over Syria. While Kerry did not name Iran, Assad’s only ally in the Middle East, the US is obviously hoping for Tehran’s assistance in forcing the Syrian president to the negotiating table.

Longstanding US allies in the Middle East including Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are deeply hostile to any moves by the US to end its protracted stand-off with Iran. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia regard Iran as a dangerous rival for regional dominance. Washington’s relations with Tehran broke down after the 1979 Iranian revolution ousted Shah Reza Pahlavi, who had been central to US strategy in the Middle East. Relations further deteriorated after the Bush administration invaded Iraq in 2003 and signalled regime-change in Iran was its next objective.

Republican criticisms notwithstanding, the Obama administration has repeatedly made clear that any agreement with Iran will be on US terms. Ever since assuming office in 2009, Obama has insisted that “all options remain on the table”—that is, including military strikes against Iran. If the US does “walk away” from the current talks, as Kerry indicated was possible, the military option would again loom large, amid a clamour for action from the Republican-dominated congress.

In a comment entitled “War is the only way to stop Iran” published in yesterday’s Washington Post, neo-con Joshua Muravchik suggested that the Obama administration had no alternative than to attack Iran even if it resulted in Iranian retaliation. “Yes, there are risks to military action. But Iran’s nuclear program and vaunting ambitions have made the world a more dangerous place. Its achievement of a bomb would magnify that danger manyfold. Alas, sanctions and deals will not prevent this,” he concluded.

Thus one of the advocates of the illegal US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq based on lies about weapons of mass destruction proposes a new war of aggression based on unsubstantiated claims about Iranian nuclear bombs. The Obama administration has no fundamental objection to waging war against Iran, but prefers to neutralise or even enlist Tehran, as it prepares for even more reckless and dangerous conflicts against nuclear-armed Russia and China.

This article first appeared on World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) on 16 March 2015, and was republished with permission.

Readers might like to see what Hillary Mann Leverett, who served on the American National Security Council under Presidents Clinton and Bush, was U.S. negotiator with Iran from 2001 to 2003, and co-authored the book Going to Tehran: Why America Must Accept the Islamic Republic of Iran, has to say on this subject here and here.

dinsdag 17 februari 2015

Minsk-2, het bestand in Oekraïne. Wat nu?

President of Russia Vladimir Putin, President of France Francois Hollande, Federal Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko at the talks in the Normandy format. Photo: RIA Novosti

Minsk-2 is enkel een bestand. Er moeten politieke knopen worden doorgehakt. Oekraïne moet economisch op de been worden geholpen. Het land moet een niet-gebonden status krijgen, het oosten een vergaande autonomie verlenen. De Krim is verloren.

De wapens mogen dan - behalve in Debaltsevo - zwijgen, veel meer heeft Minsk-2 niet opgeleverd. Het prijskaartje voor Oekraïne aan de Duitse realpolitik is niet mis. Dat het Westen niet bereid was een gewapend conflict te riskeren voor Oekraïne was al bekend. Maar nu heeft het Westen zich blijkbaar ook neergelegd bij een opdeling van het land. Na de Krim verliest Oekraïne dus ook de gebieden in het oosten. De Duitse onderhandelaars mogen nog zo hard roepen dat een nieuwe Yalta-conferentie die Oekraïne opdeelt tussen het Westen en Rusland er niet inzit, de werkelijkheid is dat de bestandslijn een regio bestuurd door Kiev scheidt van een gebied waar Rusland invloed uitoefent. Een weg terug is er niet.

Intussen zijn de Russische president Poetin, de Duitse bondskanselier Merkel en de Oekraïense president Poroshenko ook concrete stappen overeengekomen voor toezicht door OSCE-waarnemers op de naleving van het bestand in Oost-Oekraïne, zo liet een Duitse regeringsfunctionaris het persagentschap Reuters weten. Maar tegelijk legde de EU Rusland aanvullende sancties op. Op de EU-Newsroom treft men een speciale pagina aan over het verloop van de sancties op Rusland, die “de EU heeft opgelegd als antwoord op de illegale annexatie van de Krim en de opzettelijke destabilisering van een soeverein buurland.” Zoals te verwachten geen woord over de door de VS en de EU - met Duitsland voorop - gesponsorde coup van februari 2014 waarbij een democratisch verkozen president uit het zadel werd gelicht.

Voor Moskou schaden de nieuwe sancties de kans op een oplossing van het conflict

“Moskou is verbijsterd over de beslissing van de EU om de sancties uit te breiden,” zo liet het Russische ministerie van buitenlandse Zaken in een verklaring weten. Die schaadt de kans op een oplossing voor het interne conflict in Oekraïne en wordt vanzelfsprekend beantwoord door tegensancties, aldus het ministerie. Maar deze verklaring is enkel voor buitenlandse consumptie. Niemand in Rusland gelooft dat de sancties van het Westen worden opgeheven. De consensus is dat het Russische optreden rond de Krim en de Donbass slechts een voorwendsel is voor de sancties. De werkelijke reden is wat de Russen het “proces van soevereinisatie” noemen, het feit dat Rusland weer terug is op het wereldtoneel en zich openlijk verzet tegen het Westen.

De sancties van het Westen hebben niet het beoogde effect. Rusland verandert zijn gedrag niet. Moskou’s antwoord is tweeledig: verleg het zwaartepunt van de economische betrekkingen weg van het Westen en maak Rusland minder afhankelijk van de export van olie en de import van consumptiegoederen en technologie. De EU schiet dus in eigen voet. De sancties ten spijt, Poetin’s populariteit blijft op recordhoogte. Geen Rus die hem de sancties en de daaruit resulterende ontberingen verwijt. De bevolking begrijpt waarom Poetin door het Westen wordt gehaat. En de consensus is dat de huidige Russische kwetsbaarheid voortvloeit uit vroegere structurele beleidsfouten die nu worden gecorrigeerd. En er is geen Rus die meent dat de terugkeer van de Krim naar Rusland of de steun voor Novorussia fout waren of verkeerd uitgevoerd. De bevolking schaart zich achter zijn leider.

Merkel lijkt stilaan te beseffen dat Moskou niet inbindt

Men moet er niet aan twijfelen dat Merkel vandaag het resultaat van die coup betreurt. Op een moment waarop het Oekraïense leger door de Donbass strijdkrachten smadelijk dreigde te worden verslagen en Oekraïne voor een bankroet stond probeerde zij via gehaaste pendeldiplomatie te redden wat er te redden was. Niet toevallig kwam op het moment waarop een akkoord in Minsk binnen handbereik was het nieuws over een nieuwe financiële injectie voor Oekraïne, die het IMF niet verleent aan een land in oorlog. Merkel lijkt stilaan te beseffen dat Moskou niet inbindt. Oekraïne heeft meer dan 1000 jaar onderdeel uitgemaakt van Rusland. Het land is voor Rusland niet enkel een essentiële handelspartner en leverancier van landbouwproducten, maar ook een onmisbare veiligheidsbuffer. Geen enkele Russische leider blijft passief als zo’n buurland dreigt in het Westerse kamp te belanden. Oekraïne is van vitaal strategisch belang voor Rusland.

Poroshenko legt zich nog altijd niet bij de feiten neer. Hij wordt daarin gesteund door heel wat ervaren Amerikaanse diplomaten, denktanklieden en zelfs de aankomende nieuwe minister van Defensie Ash Carter, die aandringen op $1 miljard militaire steun voor Oekraïne. Het zijn veelal dezelfde lieden die zich destijds sterk maakten voor het opschuiven van de NAVO tot de Russische grens, een ontwikkeling die de relatie met Rusland grondig heeft vergiftigd. Bewapening van Oekraïne schrikt Moskou niet af. Poetin heeft geen agressieve, expansieve ambities. Rusland is een wereldmacht op zijn retour die probeert de internationale invloed die het nog heeft en een bescheiden invloedssfeer rond zijn grenzen te vrijwaren. Moskou is beducht voor Amerika dat overal ter wereld regimewissels bekokstooft, inclusief in buurland Oekraïne, en in staat is dat kunstje ook in Rusland te proberen. Het is eerder sluimerende angst dan meedogenloze ambitie die Rusland’s houding in Oekraïne bepaalt.

Dat Washington zich door Poetin’s reactie op de coup liet verrassen getuigt van opmerkelijke diplomatieke incompetentie

Aan de basis van de Oekraïne-crisis ligt niet een Russisch initiatief, maar de poging van de VS en de EU  om Oekraïne uit de Russische invloedssfeer los te weken. Dat Washington zich door Poetin’s reactie op de coup liet verrassen getuigt van opmerkelijke diplomatieke incompetentie. Het bewapenen van Oekraïne maakt de zaken enkel maar erger. Het helpt Oekraïne niet aan een militaire overwinning. Het wakkert het conflict enkel aan. Het lot van Oekraïne is voor Moskou van veel groter belang dan voor het Westen. Poetin zal voor het realiseren van zijn doelstellingen dus bereid zijn een veel hogere prijs te betalen dan het Westen. De instelling van de Amerikaanse diplomatie is ook niet van aard om de crisis op te lossen. Amerikaanse onderhandelaars zeggen hun tegenstrever doorgaans wat er van hun wordt verwacht en krijgen via arms twisting hun zij. Men moet niet verwachten dat Moskou voor zo’n houding zwicht.

De Oekraïne-crisis kan enkel via echte diplomatie worden opgelost. Merkel en andere Europese leiders denken nog altijd dat Oekraïne in het Westerse kamp kan worden gebracht en Moskou dat moet aanvaarden. Dat is een illusie. Om Oekraïne te redden en de relatie met Rusland te herstellen moet Oekraïne een niet-gebonden status krijgen, als bufferstaat tussen Rusland en de NAVO. Oost en West moeten met vereende krachten de Oekraïense economie redden. Oost-Oekraïne moet weer onder de controle van Kiev komen, maar Donetsk en Luhansk moeten een vergaande vorm van autonomie krijgen. De Krim is na de Westerse poging om NAVO en EU tot aan de Russische grens uit te breiden voor Oekraïne voor goed verloren. Het gezonde verstand moet terugkeren om verdere schade aan Oekraïne en aan de relatie tussen Rusland en het Westen te voorkomen.