A Step Back From War

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On November 24, an interim agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions was reached between the P5+1 powers (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the US) and the Islamic Republic. Under the agreement Iran is obligated to:

  • stop enriching uranium beyond the 5% level, and take steps to downgrade its stockpile of uranium already enriched to the 20% level (at 20% it can be quickly converted to weapons-grade material)
  • allow inspectors better access to its nuclear sites, including daily inspections of the important facilities at Natanz and Fordo
  • halt development of the Arak heavy water plant, which upon completion would be capable of producing plutonium
  • build no new enrichment facilities
  • install no new centrifuges at its current facilities, or start up any centrifuges not currently in operation

Iran will be allowed to enrich uranium to the 3.5% level, as is its right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (the US interprets the NPT differently, but apparently has agreed to disagree with Iran on this, in effect conceding de facto that Iran has this right). Under the agreement Iran is also allowed to keep all of its existing centrifuges.

In return Iran will receive limited relief from the international sanctions regime which has crippled its economy. Some $6–7 billion worth of sanctions will be eased or lifted. Over $4 billion of this will come from the unfreezing of oil revenues currently held in foreign banks. No new sanctions will be imposed on Iran during the next six months (the lifetime of the interim agreement), so long as the Islamic Republic adheres to the terms of the agreement. The most crippling sanctions affecting Iran’s oil and financial sectors remain in place under the interim agreement.

There can be no question that ultimately the only alternative to negotiations is war. And war would be a catastrophe for both sides.

The US sanctions that will be removed can be lifted by presidential action — a key point, given that majorities in Congress remain suspicious of Iran. (Or, to put it another way, Israel and Saudi Arabia wield considerable influence over American legislators, while Iran has none.)

Is it a good deal? Yes, assuming that both sides are acting in good faith. The deal is an interim one with a six-month lifespan. Lacking progress on a comprehensive agreement, the US and the international community as a whole will quite likely ratchet up the sanctions pressure once more. We have not witnessed a “new Munich,” as some Israeli and neocon commentators have averred. It is quite simply the beginning of a badly needed dialogue between Iran and the West, one in which the interests of both sides may perhaps be found to dovetail. There can be no question that ultimately the only alternative to negotiations is war. And war would be a catastrophe for both sides.

This analyst feels certain that the P5+1 want to settle the Iranian nuclear issue peacefully, with Iran’s nuclear program at least frozen if not rolled back. Iran, it would seem, has been brought to the table by sanctions, particularly the very tough ones imposed since 2010. Self-interest rather than goodwill has brought the parties together, and self-interest is a much better foundation than goodwill to build a comprehensive agreement upon. Goodwill may follow in time.

There is little doubt that Iran has long sought, if not an actual nuclear weapon, at least the capability to produce one relatively quickly. Given the hostility that Iran has faced from the US, Israel, and the major Sunni Arab countries since 1979, its desire to become a nuclear power is understandable. Israel’s possession of a formidable nuclear arsenal (probably 200 or perhaps even 300 weapons) makes Iran’s effort seem puny by comparison. But again, it is Israel and not Iran that has widespread influence over the US Congress and American public opinion. On this issue the American viewpoint has been badly slanted in favor of both Israel and Saudi Arabia (two nations which are, in effect, allies when it comes to Iran), irrespective of US national interests. With this interim agreement the Obama administration has made a small beginning in redressing that dangerous imbalance.

In fact, it really isn’t the terms of this agreement that have disturbed the Israelis and the Saudis, but the very fact that an agreement was reached at all. The fear in both Tel Aviv and Riyadh is that an American-Iranian détente will follow, diminishing their influence over Washington. Would that it prove so! These two “friends” of ours have done considerable damage to America over the years. Our unconditional support for Israel has warped our relationship with the Islamic world, to our cost both economically and in terms of our national security. Saudi Arabia, by exporting radical Wahhabism (in an effort, so far largely successful, to deflect the fanaticism and violence of that movement away from the House of Saud), cost us dearly at 9/11 (15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis) and thereafter. It is not too much to say that our interaction with these two countries laid the groundwork for the disasters of 9/11 and the Second Iraq War, and much else besides. The time is long overdue for a rebalancing of US policy toward the Middle East.

A truly national American policy would involve a radical break with the past, and a turn toward Iran and Shia Islam. The Iranian people, unlike the majority of Arabs (and particularly Sunni Arabs), are actually pro-Western to a great degree. This is quite evident to anyone who actually studies the country and its people, rather than relying on soundbites provided by cable news. It is true that the Islamic regime in Tehran has supported terrorist acts against the US in places such as Iraq and Lebanon. But it is equally true that this terrorism was motivated by raisons d’état, rather than religious fanaticism and anti-Occidentalism. A reorientation of US policy would bring such acts to a halt, whereas our frenemy Saudi Arabia is unable to prevent (indeed, has at times even secretly encouraged) Sunni terrorism against the US.

The US, under the leadership of President George W. Bush, put the Shia majority in power in Iraq, by means of war. Having embarked upon such a policy, we should, logically, extend it by demanding majority (i.e., Shia) rule in Bahrain. The next step, from the perspective of realpolitik, would be a US-Iranian condominium over the Shia-majority Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, which coincidentally is where almost all of the Saudi oil is located. But of course we lack the statesmen or women capable of charting such a course.

A truly national American policy would involve a radical break with the past, and a turn toward Iran and Shia Islam.

To return then to the real world. This interim agreement opens the possibility of preventing a nuclear Iran without war. A US war against Iran would be a difficult proposition under any circumstances. Given the strain of a dozen years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is a real danger of the US military cracking during an operation that, to be successful, would entail the commitment of considerably more resources than those devoted to the Iraq war. The economic consequences of such a war (including a major increase in the price of oil, and the choice between borrowing money or raising taxes to pay the war costs) would be devastating.And an attack on Iran, as former Sec. of Defense Bob Gates commented during the Bush administration, would create a wave of terrorism that might persist for decades. There is in fact no alternative to a diplomatic solution.

Will diplomacy succeed? As already mentioned, both sides appear committed to reaching an agreement. The West needs peace and quiet in the Persian Gulf; Iran desperately needs relief from sanctions. Therefore it would seem this interim agreement will be succeeded by a more comprehensive one. Even so, it may be that in the end we will find ourselves containing an Iran that retains a “breakout capability.” But if we could contain a Soviet Union bristling with nukes, then surely we can contain a power that may have the capacity to produce one or two or even a dozen bombs. The alternative, war, is a far bleaker prospect.

Its logic aside, I regard a successful diplomatic outcome as a 50-50 proposition at best. Very powerful forces, both inside the US and beyond our borders, are committed to keeping the US and Iran apart. They are prepared to do almost anything to prevent a US-Iranian détente. And I fear they will.




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Film and the Fight for Freedom

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In many works of fiction, the protagonist is an "outsider," either one who literally comes from outside the community or one who resides within the community but nevertheless is an outsider in terms of personal values and behavior. This character allows the reader or the audience to identify with the community and at the same time view the beliefs and values of the community through fresh eyes — often, in so doing, reevaluating ideas and practices that we once took for granted as self-evident and unalienable.

In Wadjda the title character (Waad Mohammed) is this kind of protagonist. She is a 10-year-old girl living within the orthodox community of Saudi Arabia, but she has very unorthodox desires. She does not openly defy the values and practices of her community; indeed, she wears her scarves and abaya as though they were as natural as her hair, and she nods nonchalantly when her mother tells her she is old enough to start covering her face with her ayallah when she goes outside. She attends a religious girls' school and works hard to learn her lessons, which are replete with the acknowledgement that everything is controlled by the goodness of Allah. When one of her pre-pubescent classmates is married over the weekend, Wadjda giggles but is not concerned. These are givens in her community.

But Wadjda has her own values as well. She wears sneakers under her abaya, and inside those shoes her toenails are painted candy-apple blue. She listens to western music on an ancient cassette tape player in her room, and she often wears a t-shirt emblazoned with "I am a great catch" in English (although we never know for sure whether she understands what the words mean). She is attracted to the culture of the West, even though she is immersed in the culture of the Middle East.

Most of all, Wadjda wants to own a bike. She wants to know the freedom of riding faster than she can run, and the satisfaction of racing against her best friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), who happens to be a boy. All the boys have bikes. But nice girls don't ride bicycles. A fall could be dangerous to their virginity — and we know how important that is in Middle Eastern culture. So no one encourages or helps Wadjda in her goal.

"Wadjda" does not ascend a soapbox to make its case; it is a film with a message, but it is not a message film.

Nevertheless, Wadjda is determined to buy the shiny green bike on display at the local sundries store. She becomes an entrepreneur by making bracelets to sell to her friends. She charges acquaintances for running errands and with a determined voice and a winning smile convinces them to pay her extra. She forgoes instant gratification in order to save for her big purchase when she no longer buys treats and trinkets from the corner store when her friends go shopping. Eventually she realizes that she will never save enough money by doing menial tasks, especially when the local store begins selling Chinese-made bracelets at a fraction of the former price.

So she does what every good entrepreneur must do: she uses her savings as seed money to capitalize a larger business venture. Lured by the prize money of 1,000 riyals, she decides to enter the school's Quran recitation contest (sort of like a spelling bee or Geography Bowl). But since she has never been a good student of the Quran, she invests all her savings to purchase "capital goods": an expensive electronic study aid. It is a big risk, but it is the only way that she can turn her 80 riyals into the 800 riyals she needs to purchase the bike.

Wadja's mother (Reem Abdullah) is also an entrepreneur of sorts who understands that success requires taking risks. (Significantly, she has no name in the film except "Mother.") Her mother-in-law is shopping for a second wife for her husband, and she is determined to thwart that plan by showing everyone in the community that she is beautiful and desirable so that no other woman would be willing to become a second wife to her. To do this, she decides to invest her money in a stunning red dress to wear to a relative's upcoming wedding. This will remind everyone, including her husband, that she is not an old woman to be set aside and replaced. She is still beautiful, sexy, and valuable — not the kind of woman that another woman would want to compete with as second wife. She also makes it clear to her husband that she will no longer live with him connubially if he takes another wife. Like Wadjda, she risks everything to accomplish her goal.

As with the best of outsider fiction, Wadjda does not ascend a soapbox to make its case; it is a film with a message, but it is not a message film. In fact, it is more about following one's dreams and making things happen than it is about the evils of a particular culture. Writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour presents the Saudi culture respectfully and matter-of-factly, without exaggeration or overt criticism. The film is subtly nuanced and carefully crafted not to offend; in fact, a true believer in the Saudi way of life could view this film as an example of what happens to women who rebel. No men ever step in to exert authority over the women. No overt abuse occurs. No legal authorities step in to limit these women's rights.

In fact, most of the rules are applied by other women. They simply accept the cultural mores regarding gender and enforce the rules themselves. The bike shop owner (a man) has no problem selling a bike to a girl; the men who see Wadjda and the other girls in public do not tell them to withdraw. In fact, it does not even seem to be against the law for girls to ride a bike; it simply isn't done, and it is the women, not the men, who enforce this cultural taboo. Moreover, Wadjda's father seems to be a very loving and affectionate man who is somewhat trapped by the culture himself.

Nevertheless, it took great courage to make this film in Saudi Arabia. There is no doubt that Al-Mansour expects her audience to open their eyes and see the hypocrisy and injustice that the characters themselves seem to overlook. Nineteenth-century writers and dramatists such as Jane Austen and Henrik Ibsen opened the eyes of their audiences in similar ways. They presented the current culture as it was, creating a setting in which the audience felt comfortable and at home. Then they skillfully allowed an outsider protagonist to lead the audience into discovering the hypocrisy and injustice of the culture in which they felt so comfortable. Why should Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) and Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility), two of Jane Austen's most beloved characters, have fewer opportunities for happiness in marriage simply because their fathers did not inherit the family wealth? Why should Nora (Ibsen's proactive protagonist in A Doll's House), be forced to hide in the attic, earning money by copying documents, simply because she is a married woman and doesn't have her husband's consent to work?(Writers today take it another step and challenge the Victorian idea that marriage is the key to happiness.)

Works of fiction still have the power to influence their culture by shining subtle lights back upon itself. They have more power to change a cultural mindset than all the "pinprick" assaults and direct attacks of war will ever have. Film has the power to change minds and hearts, and Wadjda is an instance. It presents one of the spunkiest and most charming protagonists to come along in quite a while. Instinctively, without even knowing it, she is a libertarian through and through. Wadjda is a film that will warm your heart even as it breaks it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Wadjda," written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour. Highlook Communications and Razor Film Produktion (2012), 98 minutes. (In Arabic with English subtitles. But don't let that hold you back.)



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Abundant Resources

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Free market advocates have long argued that there is no shortage of fossil fuel (oil and natural gas) in the US, for as long as that is going to be the dominant energy source in this country — in other words, for the foreseeable future. We have argued that the US ought to use its own abundant supplies.

We argue this on national security as well as economic grounds. Building regulatory walls against exploiting our abundant fuel reserves deprives the nation of jobs and wealth, so it is economically stupid. This is obvious. But it should also be obvious that those walls channel money to regimes that wish us all manner of ills, even extermination — so the restrictions are strategically stupid. We send ever more troops to ever more dangerous places, so we can keep importing that which we have utterly no need to import.

It is with interest, therefore, that I note the complete lack of interest shown by the mainstream media in the congressional testimony of the federal government’s own Government Accountability Office (GAO) regarding America’s fossil fuel reserves.

The GAO reports that the Green River Formation of shale (which lies under the area where Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming join) contains the world’s largest known oil shale deposit, holding an amount of recoverable oil equal to all the world’s proven oil reserves. In fact, Anu Mittal, director of natural resources for the GAO, testified that the formation contains about three trillion barrels of oil, about half recoverable with known technology. And remember — we can only guess at future technological improvements.

In fact, the GAO now estimates that the US has more by way of fossil fuel reserves than any other country on earth by far, with Russia in second place and Saudi Arabia a distant third. Bottom line: even while Obama is telling the public that we use 20% of the world’s oil and have only 2% of the known reserves, his own GAO reports that America has the largest reserves of fossil fuel on the planet.

But while Russia, Saudi Arabia, and other energy endowed countries are moving ahead to develop what they have, our government would rather block our own development. Go figure.




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