Saturday, March 29, 2014
Ban Right on Iran
WRMEA, March/April 2014, Pages 28-29
George Orwell invented “non-persons” in his novel 1984—people so politically incorrect they were treated as if they did not exist. He also invented the “Two Minutes Hate,” in which crowds were worked into paroxysms of rage at the mention of Big Brother’s political opponent.
Today it is not Big Brother but the Dog’s Tail which decides which is a non-country or a non-person, and identifies which countries are so unfit that they can only be ritually vilified. In Washington, the powers that be seem to blithely forget the years in which the old China lobby persuaded them to ignore Beijing, and the sore loser faction bade them to boycott Hanoi—or how, until recently, no one could talk to the Palestinians. Even now, we can only talk to some Palestinians.
In a recent example of this selective and consciously directed amnesia, Norway’s permanent representative to the U.N. told the Security Council that his country was “deeply concerned about the deteriorating economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza. We call for the lifting of the restrictions in compliance with Security Council Resolution 1860 in all its elements, including the need for security for all the civilian populations.”
Compared with what comes out of mealy-mouthed Washington, this sounds like a strong statement. But readers accustomed to the sound of silence will note the absence of names in this otherwise resounding declaration by Norway in the first Security Council meeting of 2014 on the Middle East situation. In what perilously approached Orwell’s Doublethink, Norway could not bring itself to name Israel as the country maintaining the restrictions its diplomat was deploring in defiance of previous resolutions.
In contrast, Iran did not disguise its favorite target the way it used to, since the former “Zionist Entity” has now graduated to become “The Israeli Regime”—which, the Iranian envoy pointed out, “is the only one in the region that possesses all types of Weapons of Mass Destruction but is not a party to any of the treaties banning them.”
He added that it “should also be compelled to join such treaties, in particular to accede to the NPT, without any further delay and precondition, and place all its nuclear activities under the IAEA comprehensive safeguards, in order to remove the only obstacle for the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East proposed by Iran in 1974.”
One might not totally appreciate the messenger, but the message is spot on!
Despite, or perhaps even because of, such eminently good common sense, Washington banned Tehran from the peace talks in Geneva, to which U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon very sensibly had invited it.
As Ban recognized, you do not make peace by refusing to talk to opponents, and vetoing Iran’s involvement makes it more difficult to achieve peace. The whole debacle suggests that the Obama administration is acting from the Clinton-era script when its dealings with the U.N. are concerned. It is not surprising that Secretary- General Ban has quipped that SG stood for “Scape Goat,” but this debacle, unfairly, had him dubbed as Washington’s poodle—for taking a step with the full knowledge of the State Department and U.S. administration, but which the U.S. then expediently repudiated.
Despite being the victim of poison gas attacks itself, it is true that Iran has not exactly covered itself with ethical or humanitarian glory during the Syrian tragedy. But then, neither has Russia, which has supplied the bulk of the weaponry for the regime. And yet no one has suggested banning Moscow from the talks, or even the Assad regime itself. Additionally, after that regime, among the major obstacles to a rational and democratic solution are the fundamentalist fighters bankrolled by major Arab oil states—with whom the U.S. maintains the closest and most amicable relations.
The problem is that in some quarters—including these armers and bankers of war criminals—Iran is a non-country, which leads to palpably nonsensical acrobatics by Washington and others. The U.S. can have bases in countries bankrolling “terrorist” groups, but because those profoundly undemocratic regimes do not like Iran, the U.S. must be careful about talking to Tehran.
So Israel could sell the ayatollahs weapons in the course of Iran-Contra, during which the U.S. itself was using Tehran to arm right-wing terrorists in Nicaragua. The U.S. and Iran can both support the Iraqi government in defeating Sunni insurgents and terrorists in Iraq, and indeed colluded to combat the Taliban in Afghanistan.
But because President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were, quite correctly, talking to Iran on the nuclear issue, they were on a short leash from AIPAC on Iranian entanglements. This time the dog had more than one tail: There was external pressure from Arabs and Israel, and of course the internal pressure from Congress being whipped up by AIPAC.
Clearly in the real world, it is to everyone’s advantage to have at the table a major player in the conflict—if you want it to end. But diplomacy is often best orchestrated to the sound of silence. Not mentioning issues is often crucial to getting parties to agree to talks, and so Iran’s invitation to the peace talks involved eliding the issue of whether Iran explicitly accepted the Geneva Communiqué on which the talks were based. It had not, but showed signs that it could be nudged that way.
So Ban, with the full knowledge of the U.S., invited Iran to the talks, despite the fudge on whether or not Tehran had signed off on the communiqué. He was taking a bold risk. He rightly believed that Iran should be there, but the talks were the property of the participants, each of which had an implicit veto.
It was a delicate operation, depending on complicity and discretion from all parties. Someone somewhere blew enough to bring the house of cards down. The U.S. side seems to have demanded explicit guarantees of Iranian acceptance of the communiqué, which precipitated an explicit repudiation of them by Tehran. That led to Washington demanding that Ban withdraw the invitation to Iran. American briefers immediately began to castigate Ban’s incompetence, even though it was U.S. diplomatic ineptitude that seems to have precipitated the collapse.
Was it the usual Iran haters who blew the structure down, or did someone in the administration do it so that they could appease AIPAC for defeating it on the sanctions issue? There were so many places such a complex operation could be toppled, it would be difficult to tell. It could be that one part of the administration knew what was happening, and another didn’t.
Clearly, Ban also, justifiably, feels let down by the Iranians for rising to the American bait so quickly. They should have just shut up and turned up.
But the name-calling cannot disguise the inalienable truth that if the talks are to be successful then Iran should be involved in them, that Ban was right to invite them and the U.S. foolish to disinvite them.
As a corollary, if the U.S. had a coherent foreign policy it would build on its common ground with Iran—in Iraq, in Afghanistan and, increasingly, on the nuclear issue, to persuade Tehran that there were advantages in working with Washington to force Assad to the negotiating table. Indeed, the U.S., as its own hydrocarbons bubble up out of the ground, could persuade the Arab Iran-haters to cease their pernicious activities in backing terrorist bands that tend to make Assad look good, even as they open a fifth column in the opposition’s ranks.
Washington could have expressed its regrets at the Iranian invitation, and let it stand. It is not in the longterm interests of the U.S., or any other responsive great power, to diminish the appearance of independence by the United Nations. In the end, the Geneva Talks epitomize the U.N.’s dilemma. The organization is needed to provide a neutral space, an arena for the negotiations. But it also needs the active collaboration of its most powerful and involved members to produce results.A secretary-general can only play the hand he is dealt, and in this case Ban’s two aces turned to jokers. He should not let it dissuade him from trying to do the right thing in the future.