Remembering A Baghdad Elsewhere: An Emotional Cartography

"The planes that were arranged to transport Iraqi-Jews to #Israel uprooted millennia of life in Babylon, leading to a new diasporic existence. Overnight, we were no longer Iraqis, but Israelis; a new citizenship coupled with a strict poetic national-culture meter. The Israeli-Arab conflict formulated a new grammar of belonging where Arabness and Jewishness composed a mutually exclusive syntax, in excess of each other. Upon their arrival in Israel, my grandparents did not speak Hebrew and never learned it until their last day. My parents, while becoming more fluent in Hebrew, persisted to speak it with a heavy Iraqi accent, unable to erase the traces of their “Bilad al-Rafidein” (Mesopotamia) birthplace. 

My father and his friends, during their first days as construction workers, communicated among themselves in Arabic but were disdainfully ordered by their Euro-Israeli boss to “Stop speaking Arabic! We are not in an Arab country.” Arabic, needless to say, was the language of the enemy. A Jew could not speak it, and a Jew could certainly not claim it as an identity marker. “In Iraq,” my parents often lamented, “we were Jews. In Israel, we are Arabs.””

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Mr Obama, on what planet do you live?

In retrospect, worse than speech was the whole concept of the visit itself. Obama should never have undertaken such a visit without an accompanying willingness to treat the Palestinian reality with at least equal dignity to that of the Israeli reality and without some indication of how to imagine a just peace based on two states for two peoples given the outrageous continuing Israeli encroachments on occupied Palestinian territory that give every indication of permanence - not to mention the non-representation and collective punishment of the Gazan population of 1.5 million.

Obama made no mention of the wave of recent Palestinian hunger strikes or the degree to which Palestinians have shifted their tactics of resistance away from a reliance on armed struggle. It is perverse to heap praise on the oppressive occupier, ignore non-violent tactics of Palestinian resistance and the surge of global solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, and then hypocritically call on both peoples to move forward toward a peaceful resolution of conflict by building relations of trust with one another. Mr Obama, on what planet are you living? 

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Egyptian Jews and the Muslim Brotherhood

There is no question about it: the Muslim Brotherhood’s organizations all over the Arab world have stumbled on a foreign policy governing formula that ruling Arab families have stuck to for decades. It’s simple: an alliance between a governing party or a ruling family in the Arab world and the Western Zionists can bring about Western governmental support.

The House of Saud dealt with growing US public and congressional criticisms after September 11 by solidifying an alliance with Israel. Once the House of Saud worked to elevate the alliance with Israel, all public and congressional criticisms of Saudi Arabia – even its role in funding Islamic fanaticism around the world – died down. In Egypt, Anwar Sadat established a unique dictatorship that enjoyed unprecedented Western support because he surrendered to Israeli occupation and attained the Western “honor” of being the first Arab leader to sign publicly a peace treaty with Israel. (Of course, many Arabs before him, from the Maronite patriarchs to Hashemites had signed secret treaties with the Zionist movement.)

The Muslim Brotherhood is about to solidify its rule by striking a strong security-political alliance with Western Zionists and with Israel. It was not a coincidence that Mohamed Morsi released his Ottoman-style presidential decrees hours after gaining US approval for brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

Gone are the grotesque speeches about jihad about the anti-Jewish chants about Khaybar and the threats to Jews, qua Jews. Muslim Brotherhood leaders from Tunisia (in the form of an-Nahda) to Egypt and Syria have been feverishly sending delegations (in public and in secrecy) to Washington to meet with the leaders of AIPAC (or of its research arm, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy) in order to reassure Zionists about the peaceful intentions of the Brotherhood toward the aggressive state of Israel.

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Saudis’ Proxy War Against Iran

Extensive reporting from local sources in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states reveals that several countries surrounding Iran are beginning to back the country’s ethnic dissidents as a way of waging a proxy war against the mullahs. In Saudi Arabia, media and clerical elites recently mobilized to raise public awareness about the situation of Ahwazi Arabs, frame their cause as a national liberation struggle, and urge Arabs and Muslims to support them. Saudi donors are providing money and technological support to Ahwazi dissidents seeking to wage their own public information campaign, calling on Ahwazis to rise up against their rulers. The Saudi initiatives, in turn, join ongoing ventures by Azerbaijan and Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government to organize and train other dissident groups.

In June, a young Saudi cleric named Abdullah Al Ya’n Allah, hosting a new satellite TV program called Ahwaz the Forgotten (Al-Ahwaz al-Mansiya), castigated Arabs for ignoring the plight of their brethren living under Iranian occupation. Saudi newspaper headlines began to describe the mistreatment of Ahwazi Arabs.Elaph, a Saudi-backed online magazine, started educating its readers on the history of the “Ahwazi struggle” and covering news from the “front.” The high-traffic, Saudi-backed Al-Arabiya Web site in September gave a platform to a prominent Ahwazi activist, publishing a speech he had given about his cause during a French parliamentary symposium. (English translation here.) And in a country where poetry still inspires a mass audience, popular Saudi poet Nauf al-Mutayri began writing odes to the woebegone province. (In fact, she contacted me out of the blue last month to propose that I too learn about Ahwaz and try to interest Americans in its “liberation.”)

But Saudi support for the Ahwazi opposition is one piece of a larger regional picture. Saudis are also providing more modest funding to non-Arab ethnics in Iran, as are two other neighboring countries. From the Iranian province of Baluchistan, an overwhelmingly Sunni-populated area, a new separatist group announced its establishment on Oct. 11. Ya’n Allah, the Saudi host of Ahwaz the Forgotten, immediately began to publicize the group, both on television and via his Twitter followers. I reached the group’s media director in Bahrain last week. (He goes by Ali al-Mahdi, a name with a Shiite ring to it—a caustic joke for a Sunni militant who speaks about Shiites with great hostility.) He complained of too little backing: “We get support for [families of] martyrs, like from students … $500, $1,000 [at a time]. It’s nothing!” For the first time publicly, Mehdi claimed credit on behalf of his organization for the mid-October suicide attack near a mosque in southeastern Iran. “If we get [more] support,” he said in response to a question about Gulf donors, “you will see Baluchistan on fire,” he said, “like Syria and Afghanistan.” He added that if Iran makes good on its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, his group will attack the free port of Chah Behar, a key transit point for Chinese, Russian, and North Korean ships, so that Iran loses all southeasterly access to the seas.

Meanwhile, as Tel Aviv University’s Ofra Bengio noted last month, Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government now provides Iranian Kurdish opposition groups with a safe haven and the freedom to organize, train, and access Iran across its porous eastern border. Thanks to the KRG’s warm relations with the United States and Israel, the area may also have served as a connecting point for talks and cooperation between the two powers and Iran’s Kurds (or play such a role in the future).

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//From the latest issue of my e-zine// Reflections on the Middle East

Any Israeli attack against Iran will be beneficial for Iran and its regime. It would give Tehran a position of victim, what it loves to promote. Many Arabs would side with Iran. Moreover, the Saudis would be embarrassed. Of course, they would be an objective ally of Israel in the issue, as they do not want a nuclear Iran and dream to weaken that country. I think they would condemn the attack while trying to take advantage of it. But it would increase tensions in the Gulf and the possibility of a regional war, which Riyadh does not want. For obvious reasons, Saudi Arabia prefers to count on Western countries instead of Israel to wield pressure on Iran.

Please check it out. 

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"US policy, currently, is to strangle Iran through economic warfare…US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Arms Services Committee in February of this year that the sanctions “probably will not jeopardize the regime,” but will certainly, “have greater impacts on Iran.” By “Iran,” Clapper means the seventy-five million Iranians. The US political class is in agreement: “Sanctions,” they say gleefully, “are working.” This is reminiscent of US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s callous statement in 1996; when asked about the half-million dead Iraqi children resulting from the sanctions against the regime, she said, “we think the price is worth it.”"

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Of Stupid Men and Smart Machines

"…emerging narratives of what unfolded in Benghazi Tuesday night hint of a different antecedent. A crowd of largely unarmed demonstrators was soon joined by individuals armed with anti-aircraft weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. The p

roliferation of heavy weapons in private hands in Libya should come as no surprise. As Gaddafi’s apparatus crumbled in town after town at the start of last year’s uprising, residents raided the abandoned warehouses storing stockpiles of weapons. That private armed militias beyond the control of the transitional post-Gaddafi state have persisted has been noted for well over a year now. 

Yet, the Obama administration has touted Libya as a success story for US foreign policy, glossing over complexities and contradictions. So on Wednesday morning, a visibly distressed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could ask: “How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?” 

She was right to insist that the attack was the work of a “small and savage group, not the people or government of Libya.” However, if there is any truth to reports suggesting that the attacks were not quite spontaneous, but the work of experienced combatants affiliated with one or more Islamist militias, therein may lie an uncomfortable answer to Clinton’s question. One allegation is that popular outrage over the film provided a convenient cover for an attack avenging the recent killing of senior Al-Qaeda member Abu Yahya Al-Libi, a Libyan national killed by a US drone strike in Pakistan in June. The Benghazi assault happened one day after a video was released of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri confirming the death of al-Libi and calling for revenge. If the two events are indeed connected, then it is a harsh and unforgiving calculus: one high-ranking Al Qaeda member extrajudicially assassinated by the United States, one high-ranking American diplomat and three others killed by a pro-Al-Qaeda group in Libya.” 

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Iranian Women: Victims of Economic Strain

As those both inside and outside Iran have rightly pointed out, the course restrictions do reflect stereotypes about “male” and “female” abilities and will likely be welcomed by those hostile to women’s involvement in the public sphere. More often than not, however, observers outside the country have overestimated the influence of gender stereotypes and glossed over the impact of structural issues, such as socio-economic disparities, on policies, like the academic course restriction, that affect women inside Iran. As with most things in the country, the reality behind Iran’s new university policy is more complex than suggested by these simplified narratives.

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Syria and the Invisible Hand of Foreign Intervention

Last week, Reuters reported a classified intelligence “finding” signed by President Obama authorizing aid to the Syrian rebels. This may be the tip of the iceberg that eventually reveals an extensive covert campaign by the United States, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to overthrow the Assad government in Damascus. According to this scenario, these U.S. allies would be using Qatar, assorted freelance jihadists and Lebanese rightists as cat’s-paws to sustain the uprising. Jihadists, both Syrian and foreign, may also play a spearhead role in the fighting.

Western powers already may be employing destabilization methods in Syria that were perfected in Libya. The DGSE, French foreign intelligence, cobbled together a group of Libyan exiles to form the “National Forces Coalition,” which rallied anti-Qadaffi elements in Benghazi. Britain’s MI6 intelligence had been active there for decades stirring up opponents of the Qadaffi regime.

In Libya, NATO air power intervened on “humanitarian” grounds to halt killing of civilians. News reports showed only lightly armed civilians battling Qadaffi’s regulars. Not shown were French, British and some other Western special forces disguised as Libyans that did much of the fighting and targeted air strikes.

As a former soldier, I cannot believe that anti-Assad forces in Syria have made such great strides on their own. All armed forces require command and control, specialized training, communications and logistics. How have anti-Assad forces moved so quickly and pushed back Syria’s capable, well-equipped army? Where does all their ammo come from? Who is supplying all those modern assault rifles with optical sights?

How have so many Syrian T-72 tanks and other armored vehicles been knocked out? Not by amateur street fighters. Powerful antitank weapons—likely French, American or Turkish—have been used extensively. You don’t blow up a modern T-72 tank with light, handheld RPG rockets. Powerful antitank weapons, like the U.S. TOW or French Milan, require professional, trained crews. The use of these weapons suggests that outside forces are involved in the fighting, as they were in Libya.

Now come reports that the rebels are receiving small numbers of man-portable antiaircraft missiles. If properly used, they would threaten the Assad regime’s armed helicopters. Yet using such missiles requires a good deal of training. I saw in Afghanistan in the 1980s how long it took the mujahidin to learn this skill from CIA instructors—and then how quickly the Red Air Force was denied air superiority.

If Syria’s rebels are being trained, it is probably happening in Turkey (which makes the deadly U.S. Stinger AA missile under license). However, the United States has a major campaign under way to prevent jihadist groups from acquiring such man-portable missiles. If the Taliban received effective antiaircraft missiles, U.S. military operations in Afghanistan would be seriously threatened.

According to Reuters sources, the United States may have worked with Turkish allies to set up a command HQ at Adana, close to its Incirlik airbase in eastern Turkey near the Syrian border. This is where it would make sense for U.S. intelligence to coordinate the flow of arms, communications gear, medical supplies, food and munitions to the Syrian rebels.

Other unverified reports from the Mideast suggest that the U.S. mercenary firm formerly known as Blackwater (it recently changed its name to Academi) is training Syrian rebels in Turkey, moving in veteran mercenaries from Iraq, where there were once fifty thousand U.S.-paid private soldiers, and sending combat units into Syria.

Antiregime groups such as the Free Syrian Army probably would be ineffective without some kind of covert Western support. Whether they can grasp power from the jihadis who now dominate the streets remains to be seen. This gambit worked in Libya—at least so far. Syria, in contrast, is a very complex nation whose modern era has been marked by instability and coups.

After overthrowing one Syrian government in the late 1940s, Washington wisely backed off from Syria. Now it may get drawn back into the vortex of one of the Mideast’s most difficult nations.

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Pressure Madness Continues

Here we go with another round of Americans on different parts of the political spectrum trying to outdo each other in pushing for more pressure and punishment on Iran. As usual, all this pushing is almost totally devoid of any attention to exactly how the pressure and punishment are supposed to accomplish anything useful or to why they haven’t accomplished more than they have so far. In coverage of the most recent legislative intensification of the pressure—on which the White House cooperated with Republicans and Democrats in Congress—one searches in vain for any sign of understanding of the basic principle that sanctions can only be one-half of any attempt to influence another government and that as long as Western negotiators fail to couple Iranian concessions with any significant relief from sanctions, the Iranians lack incentive to make concessions no matter how much pressure they feel. And don’t even bother searching for signs of attention to why the contingency that supposedly is driving all this—a still nonexistent Iranian nuclear weapon—should be such an obsession, beyond repeated chants of the mantra that, to use the words of one presidential candidate, it would be “the greatest threat to the world.”

Pressure on Iran has long ago passed the point of becoming a seemingly mindless, endless exercise in pressure for pressure’s sake. In the absence of any attention to the role of Western negotiating rigidity or flexibility, we have the spectacle of people calling for more of something that they themselves acknowledge isn’t working. Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, for example, notes that the goal of the sanctions is to change the political calculus of Iran’s leadership and then observes, “There’s no evidence to date that the sanctions have achieved that objective.” A statement the White House released on Tuesday proudly enumerates at length all the ways the administration has inflicted pain on Iran but—apart from noting how a few of the more focused sanctions have directly impeded nuclear activities—says nothing about what any of this is accomplishing, or could hope to accomplish. There is not a word about the critical role of negotiating positions. It is as if the economic pain is a good in itself, which it isn’t—for Iran, for the United States or for anyone else.

The sanctions story has been pushed so hard for so long that politicians are running out of creative ways to exert more pressure. One of the latest offerings is from Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who, evidently stimulated by reports of military cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan, suggests stoking ethnic Azeri nationalism in northwest Iran as a way of frightening Iranian leaders with the threat of U.S. aid for “the legitimate aspirations of the Azeri people for independence.” The dumbness of this idea is explained by Farideh Farhi, who asks us to “imagine a member of a parliament from another country sending out a letter to their government asking for support to be given to Hawaiian nationalists or for the return of California to Mexico.” Another consideration is that most Azeri Iranians are far too integrated into the social and political fabric of Iran to think in separatist terms. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is half Azeri, and opposition leader and former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi is wholly so. Perhaps an even better analogy in the U.S. context would be someone promoting the separation from the union of Massachusetts in order to realize the legitimate aspirations of Irish Americans for independence.

When future historians try to make sense of the pressure madness, a nonexistent nuclear weapon is not likely to be much of the explanation, because that simply does not make sufficient sense of the phenomenon. The current role of Israel in American politics clearly provides much of the explanation (and for an especially crisp description of that role, seeThomas Friedman’s latest column). Americans probably also are receptive to the Israeli message because the demonization of Iran helps to fulfill a historically conditioned need for foreign dragons to confront and to slay.

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King Hussein’s dual legacy

Hussein was often caught in the cross-fire because he was a man in-between, an heir to the dual legacy of Arab nationalism and western imperial patronage. His tragedy and limitations have not been fully understood. He was a victim of two forces - imperialism and nationalism - which throughout this century have interacted in the Arab world in an unequal relationship of antagonistic collaboration. The unresolved equation between these two forces has contributed greatly to the crisis of state and society in the Middle East.

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Après les « printemps » : quel avenir pour « l’Islamisme » ?

À la différence des monarques saoudiens ou marocains, dont la présence dans l’arène politique n’a toutefois jamais posé de problème aux plus laïques des dirigeants occidentaux, les formations politiques marquées par l’expérience des Frères musulmans, en passe aujourd’hui d’accéder au pouvoir sur la rive sud de la Méditerranée, sont toutes acquises à l’idée que leur légitimité est seulement démocratique et que leur exercice du pouvoir sera strictement civil.

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