24 and Zero Dark Thirty helped sell Americans on torture

A new Pew poll says Americans approve of CIA torture by 51%-29%, so bringing this out again:

Not just politicians, but also the media are responsible for selling Americans on torture. During the Bush years, there was the series 24, whose very premise – Jack Bauer only has 24 hours to stop the terrorists and save America – made the case that torture can be justified in an emergency. Last year, the film Zero Dark Thirty revived the argument by erroneously depicting torture as instrumental to finding (and killing) Osama Bin Laden. The order of events shown implies a connection between the torture of a detainee and what most Americans think is the most significant foreign policy achievement of the last decade. In other words, the plot exploits the jingoism of US audiences to convince them that while the CIA did some ugly things, it was all worth it in the end.

This kind of ideological manipulation is especially worrying in light of the filmmakers’ heavy collaboration with the CIA. The hacks behind Zero Dark Thirty got exclusive access to information about Bin Laden’s murder that was denied to the public. In return, the CIA got Oscar-nominated, chest-thumping propaganda. While some haveclaimed that the interrogation scenes are actually critical of torture, the camerawork and editing are careful to show us everything from the point of view of the CIA officers – not the detainee. For example, when he is stuffed into a box too small for his body, terrified and in pain, we don’t go in there with him. Our perspective stays outside. We’re invited to identify not with the tortured, but the torturers.

As Glenn Greenwald pointed out on MSNBC, “Americans know that torture is brutal – That’s why they think it works. They have supported torture because they believe that the people that we’re doing it to are primitive, violent, horrible savages who need to be treated brutally, because that’s the only way we can get information, and that’s the way we stay safe.”

Advertisements

Extrajudicial assassination: An Obama holiday tradition

This weekend, the Obama administration began an operation targeting “suspected Al-Qaeda militants” in Yemen, where three days of drone strikes have left at least 55 people dead. Days earlier, the Al-Qaeda network’s Arabian Peninsula affiliate (AQAP) had released a video of an unprecedented gathering of AQAP fighters, including its leader, Nasir Al-Wuhayshi, who vowed to fight back against Western “crusaders”.

George W. Bush, who launched one drone attack against Yemen (in 2002), once described the War on Terror as a “crusade”. But it’s Barack Obama – still the anti-Bush in the eyes of most Democrats, despite having bombed Yemen more than 80 times – who marked Easter Sunday by killing 30 people without charge or trial in south Yemen’s Abyan province.

Most of mainstream media reporting on the administration’s so-called targeted killing program simply parrots the claims of anonymous administration sources (or in this case, unnamed “high-level Yemeni government officials”). But can we really take their word for it? How do we know the dead were all “suspected Al-Qaeda militants”? And even if they were guilty of some punishable infraction, why couldn’t they be charged with a crime like any other criminal?

This seems like a good time to point out that:

  • The administration defines “militants” as “all military-age males in a strike zone”.
  • A Human Rights Watch report found roughly 70% of airstrike victims in Yemen were civilians.
  • Yemen is the primary theater for the Obama policy of signature strikes, which allow the administration to order an attack without knowing the identities of the targets, based on patterns of “suspicious behavior”.
  • According to a legal memo carefully prepared by the Justice Department and “leaked” in Feb. 2013, the administration doesn’t need a shred of evidence that someone is a threat to national security in order to assassinate them for being a threat to national security.

Government officials lie about the extrajudicial killing program all the time, and mainstream news outlets take their word for it – every time. When, on Dec. 12, 2013, a US drone strike hit a wedding convoy, killing at least 12 local tribespeople, US and Yemeni officials “leaked” the demonstrably untrue story that the strike had actually killed 12 militants, including Shawqi Ali Ahmad al-Badani, a mid-level AQAP operative.

The fact is that nothing drives terrorist recruitment like the Obama administration’s campaign of terror in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Libya. As a “counterterrorism” policy, extrajudicial killing – whether by drones, conventional aircraft, or any other weapon – is as counterproductive as it is ethically repugnant. Nothing foments hatred of the United States more, nothing could make outbursts of violence against Americans more inevitable, than our government’s own unrestrained savagery.

Yet polls consistently show that a significant majority of self-identified liberal Democrats support the President’s drone program. Their racism is the subtle racism of indifference to the plight of others – the brown Muslim others whose lives take a backseat to partisan loyalty. 

Every election season, the liberal media and political class position the Democratic Party as a friend: a friend to women, to ethnic minorities, to labor, to queer folks, to the “middle class”. In 2012, the Democratic cheerleading-industrial complex defeated mean old Mitt Romney by demanding lockstep marching behind the President, as if three years of neoliberalism and war were less of a dealbreaker than some missing tax returns or an unfortunate incident with the family dog.

It was later revealed that, during that election, our friend joked to aides that he didn’t know he’d be “really good at killing people”. I don’t think there’s much to say about Obama personally without buying into his formidable cult of personality – only that comments like this betray a callousness we’re told to expect from evil Republicans, not from our friends.

But it was a Democrat who ordered the deaths of four unidentified people in Pakistan on Christmas Day, 2013, and it was a Democrat who massacred 30 people in Yemen on Easter. I think Charles Davis said it best: “If I had a friend like that, I probably wouldn’t be friends with them anymore.”

A couple of media interviews with me

I was on Iran’s Press TV this past week discussing US public opinion about the War on Terror – you can watch that clip here.

I also returned to the Progressive Radio Network with a couple of my SJP comrades to talk BDS and Israeli apartheid for a full hour – stream or download here (interview starts at around minute 7:45).

The Red Fury endorses David Green in the Dem primary for IL’s 13th

The candidacy of David Green presents Illinois’s 13th district with a refreshing choice come March 18: We can a) elect a conservative Democrat to face Republican incumbent Rodney Davis in the fall, or b) elect a real alternative to the status quo, a candidate whose professional experience as a policy analyst is matched by his commitment to a pragmatic, unapologetic politics of social justice and human rights. Of the three candidates – Green, Ann Callis, and George Gollin – Green is the most progressive on every issue that matters to you.

Here’s where Green and his opponents stand on just a few of the political priorities I know local readers of this blog will share:

One issue that resonates strongly in our district is mass incarceration and the so-called War on Drugs. It’s long been obvious that the “drug war” is a farce: Behind that facade of concern for health and public safety, the US elite have built up the world’s largest, most racist police state, which imprisons as many people of color as the entire prison population of China, a country of almost 1.4 billion people.

On their campaign websites, neither Callis nor Gollin make any mention of the law enforcement and criminal justice policies responsible for the creation of what some scholars recognize as a new form of apartheid. Green writes,

I support movements toward decarceration and de-criminalization, especially in relation to non-violent behaviors. I support seriously addressing poverty at a social level and addiction at an individual level as means of moving beyond the racially-biased War on Drugs, and towards prevention, treatment, and restorative justice when appropriate.

So Green opposes the current policies of locking up millions of mostly poor, mostly black and brown people for non-violent offenses, and supports treating drug addiction as a health issue, not an issue for the courts. One can only assume that Callis and Gollin either support those policies and don’t want to admit it, or else they think Democratic voters just don’t care about the “New Jim Crow”.

Gollin and Callis are as silent on white supremacy abroad as they are on white supremacy at home. They don’t waste a single word on such trivial issues as permanent global war, the ongoing carnage that is the US legacy in Iraq, US government support for repressive client states, or the Obama administration’s continued use of torture. But as Green writes in an op-ed for Champaign-Urbana’s News-Gazette,

Since 9/11/ 2001, I have publicly and actively opposed the war-making policies of both the Bush and Obama administrations in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in the larger Middle East, South Asia and North Africa. I have opposed the expansion and privatization of the military-industrial complex, drone warfare, our empire of military bases, and military funding for Israel, Egypt and Colombia, based on the those countries’ violations of international law and human rights.

I know this to be true: David Green has been a courageous, often lonely voice of reason throughout my time as an anti-war activist in C-U. His vocal support for Palestinians’ human rights and his sober, unflinching criticism of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians have earned him the ire of many in our community who call themselves liberals. More importantly, they’ve earned him the deep respect of me and others who refuse to place a lower value on the suffering of people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America than we place on the suffering of people in our own community.

Green’s approach flies in the face of the usual Democratic extortion tactics that tell us Democrats need to support right-wing foreign policies in order to achieve a more progressive domestic agenda. Aside from its thinly-veiled racism and totally naked chauvinism, this line is also, for the most part, not supported by reality. Democrats and Republicans are thought to have meaningful differences when it comes to economics, but the fact is that Democrats have been so deeply invested in neoliberal economic policies that Republicans can only outflank them by demanding more and more cuts in taxes and spending.

Whatever promises the eloquent orator in the White House may have made, his administration’s record shows that the rich have paid less in taxes and reaped a much, much higher percentage of income gains than they did under Bush. Everyone but the most craven reactionaries claim to be concerned about widening wealth/income inequality, yet when called upon to articulate an actual solution, all party-line Democrats have to offer is the familiar medley of tax cuts, “innovation”, and investment in education and infrastructure.

Gollin’s website reads, “We must direct our economic policies toward investment in education and research, innovation as a primary driver of job growth and infrastructure repair and improvements.” On the question of job creation, it says,

We must expand credit to help small businesses start and grow, and provide tax incentives and credits to those businesses which really are “job creators.” We must prioritize policies which encourage manufacturing, construction, and production of American goods by American workers in the United States.

So Callis: “[W]e need to do more to support our colleges and universities that can be job incubators and link labor with local business leaders to identify critical skill-set [sic] needed to help re-train workers for the local jobs of the future.” She promises to

work with the district’s numerous manufacturers to see how tax credits and other incentives can help keep this critical part of our state’s economy growing. Rebuilding our local infrastructure and re-training those who are actively looking for work are vital steps toward keeping the middle class secure.

So Gollin and Callis agree that the proper role of government in “job creation” involves tax cuts that incentivize businesses to hire new workers and remolding education to fit the needs of employers. This may sound nice when you’re arguing with Republicans, but it’s not a prescription for what ails the US economy. It’s a prescription for more of the same. As Green points out,

Tax incentives for small businesses are ineffectual if not counter-productive in stimulating the number of jobs and the level of growth that is needed at this time. There is no particular magic about small businesses, and providing tax incentives to them is an ineffective way of creating jobs. Small businesses create more jobs, but also lose more jobs, and the average length of employment in small business is half that of larger businesses.

Green supports a living wage, a higher minimum wage, and the right of every worker to unionize. He’ll push for full employment as a federal government policy, which would entail living wage ($15-20/hour) jobs for every unemployed worker, and cash transfers to redistribute wealth to the bottom. This would be funded, he proposes, by a new regime of progressive taxation (including cracking down on offshore tax havens and eliminating the payroll tax).

Basically, he’s calling for an end to neoliberal deference to the private sector and a return to the sort of social-democratic policies that vastly improved the lot of the poor and working class in the industrialized capitalist economies. If the private sector won’t hire, then the government will step in to make sure that everyone who needs a stable job can find one; that everyone who is sick can get health care without falling prey to our predatory private monopoly; that millions of US children who go to bed hungry can grow up to live healthy lives doing safe, dignified work.

This line of thinking has limitations, as any Marxist worth her salt will tell you. But as Venezuela and Latin America’s “Pink Tide” have shown, in the age of global capitalism’s “race to the bottom”, it’s not only possible but necessary to find creative ways of refocusing politics on far-reaching, progressive reforms.

Gollin and Callis direct all of their appeals towards the shrinking “middle class”, without once acknowledging why it’s such a problem that the middle class is shrinking: Because poverty is built into the system of capitalism, and in capitalism, it really, really sucks to be poor.

Green’s campaign has made it clear that he isn’t afraid of the word “poverty”. While poverty is endemic to capitalism, Green believes – as we all must – that we aren’t powerless to mitigate the system’s most destructive tendencies.

Gollin talks about supporting “policies which encourage manufacturing, construction, and production of American goods by American workers in the United States”, but only Green makes the connection between “offshoring” and neoliberal “free trade” policies that allow corporations to relocate overseas in order to escape from countries where modest welfare state protections are still in place.

These agreements – the most sweeping of which is being hammered out in secret by the Obama administration and 600 corporate lobbyists – force countries to compete to offer multinational corporations the lowest wages, the flimsiest safety regulations, and so on.

Green promises to continue to oppose neoliberal policies (deregulation, austerity, privatization), not just in East Central Illinois, but in Indonesia and Bangladesh as well. Why? Because he recognizes, unlike his opponents, that in today’s global capitalism, the struggle of workers anywhere is inextricably tied to the struggle of workers everywhere.

In the early years of the Obama administration, I thought that no leftist or progressive should ever vote for a Democrat again – the injunction to vote for the “lesser evil” only to emboldens the party to serve empire and the capitalist class all the more slavishly. This remains true today.

At the time, I concluded that any vote for anyone running as a Democrat had legitimized the party and the system, and that this symbolic defeat outweighed whatever might be gained in practical terms. This is no longer my view. Progressives and the left are, today, laying the groundwork for a mass movement, and one of the ways we organize and mobilize the enormous left-wing consciousness in this country is to present concrete, practical alternatives to neoliberalism at all levels of government.

In doing so, we move this country’s political discourse to the left – and we create opportunities for working-class people to engage with and help shape a program of genuinely revolutionary reform. This will necessarily include third parties, but it also means we have to be ready to launch progressive primary challenges in places where only Democrats’ voices are heard. On the issues I’ve touched on and many, many more, David Green presents just such a challenge.

Supporters of Gollin will charge that those who vote for Green only benefit the allegedly more conservative Callis; supporters of Callis will charge that those who vote for Green only benefit the Republican incumbent.

The truth is that those of us who participate in the struggle for justice win no hearts and minds by abandoning our convictions, and Representative David Green is only as unlikely as we make it.

What is possible? A lot of things that, today, are not yet actual. The current wave of mass demonstrations, uprisings, and revolutions; the Occupy Wall Street protests; the recent electoral success of socialists running at the local level; the polls that show young Americans on average favor “socialism” over “capitalism” – these are fragments from our future, glimmers of the impossible that lies just ahead.

Guest Commentary: Iran & America – Is the nuclear deal really about nuclear weapons?

In this week’s guest commentary, author and friend of TRF Navid Zarrinnal reflects on the so-called Iranian nuclear deal and the prospect of detente between Iran and the United States. The “Iranian threat” was never about nukes, he argues, but rather, the country’s independence from the Western powers. Those looking to explain the recent cooling of tensions should instead turn their eyes to the neoliberal leanings of the new Rouhani administration.

– KS

For over a decade now, the American media, government, public intellectuals and the public at large have been anxious over Iran’s nuclear program. Government officials, media outlets and public experts have insisted that once Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it may target Israel, America’s Arab allies, or even the United States itself; this necessitates, they claim, economic sanctions or a preemptive military strike on Iran.

International English-language media, in covering Iran’s nuclear program, has failed to assuage these anxieties. Daily news, including reports on the most recent negotiations between Iran and P5+1, give the impression that the anxiety over Iran’s nuclear program really turns on a potential weapon that would threaten global security. Perhaps this is inevitable, because daily news and reports from the ground are intended to provide descriptive, factual information on current global affairs.

However, analysts and public experts who are supposed to dig deeper have failed, with some exceptions, to provide a sufficiently critical voice on the nuclear debate. They too analyze Iran and the “international community” dispute as if it is fundamentally over the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons.

The “Iranian threat” however is not about nuclear weapons; it is about something else entirely: Iran’s independence from the dominant political-economic order sought by the U.S. and its closest allies.

The threat Iranian independence poses is not new, and neither are economic sanctions. The conflict between Iran and the “international community”—a misnomer for the U.S. and allied countries—dates back to the 1950’s. Situated in the broader global movement towards decolonization, Iranians under the leadership of Mohammad Mossadeq attempted to establish a constitutional democracy and reclaim their oil from the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (now British Petroleum or BP); British-led economic sanctions and a CIA-assisted coup followed.

Again in 1979, the Iranian revolution became a major event in the history of decolonization and Third World sovereignty, resulting in the establishment of an Islamic government, which stubbornly resisted American political and economic domination even at great cost to its own stability. And with this stubborn resistance came economic sanctions and indirect military intervention via America’s old ally—turned foe—Saddam Hussein. In the 1990’s and 2000’s, the Islamic Republic continued its refusal to be subsumed under a U.S.-dominated world order; the September 11 attacks, though having no connection to the Islamic Republic, coupled with Iran’s nuclear program and the Ahmadinejad government’s foreign policy, intensified the threat of the “military option” and “crippling” economic sanctions.

Economic and political measures were thus employed historically—during Mossadeq’s premiership and the Islamic Republic’s rule—to thwart Iranian independence.

This is not to underestimate the so-called nuclear issue as the primary source of global anxiety, however; with enough attention devoted to the nuclear issue, the real threat—Iranian independence—is substituted by an imaginary threat, Iran’s nonexistent nuclear weapons.

As an example, we can look at the world of high politics. State officials like Benjamin Netanyahu, who lie irresponsibly to gain public support for their misguided policies on Iran, begin to believe in their own lies. These officials resemble, rather imperfectly, Eric Cartman in the South Park episode “Jewpacabra.” Cartman knowingly lies about the existence of a dangerous creature, Jewpacabra, that attacks Christian children on Easter, and with enough public anxieties generated around his lie, he begins to believe in the made-up creature himself and fears it immensely. Netanyahu and his devotees in the U.S. government too appear to fear an Iranpacabra of their own making.

Netanyahu and his devotees are becoming increasingly isolated on the international stage, however. The Rouhani administration with its astute foreign policy is putting great pressure on the Obama government to pursue constructive negotiations and push the military option off the table.

Additionally, the economic and political problems that face the U.S. government domestically and internationally are of sufficient magnitude to make negotiations with Iran attractive. The “War on Terror” has exhausted the American military, while the U.S. economy is under great distress. Add to that Iran’s growing strength as a regional power that may prove helpful in resolving political crisis in neighboring states like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, though not necessarily to the benefit of local populations.

Economically too, the Rouhani administration seems to have a greater degree of openness to pursuing neoliberal policies; this economic position makes negotiations with world powers, including the United States, even more attractive but not necessarily to the benefit of the Iranian working class.

The closed-door negotiations in Geneva were concluded on November 24, 2013, and a textual agreement was reached. The agreement places restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, but retains their right to uranium enrichment, in exchange for limited sanction relief. However, the nuclear deal is a distraction from more crucial political and economic issues to be negotiated, like the neoliberalization of Iran and limited U.S.-Iranian political cooperation in the Middle East.

Claims to the future state of U.S.-Iran relations remain speculative. But one observation can be made with reasonable certainty: the old animus between Iran and the United States—34 years of combative politics rooted in post-World War II history—has come to a closure.

Guest Commentary: How We Got Here – A History of Missed Opportunities with Iran

In this week’s TRF guest commentary, author Sina Toossi lays out the history and geopolitics of the so-called nuclear dispute between Iran and the US. It’s not just that the sanctions aren’t “working”, he argues: Iran simply doesn’t have a nuclear weapons program, at least not if you ask the IAEA or any of the 17 US intelligence agencies, and the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations have, over and over, turned down Iranian offers of detente and peaceful enrichment.

– KS

Negotiators from Iran and six major world powers convened again in Geneva this week, and although a deal was not reached, prospects for resolving the decade-long impasse over the Iranian nuclear program are better than they have ever been.

Led by newly elected President Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s recent diplomatic overtures to the West have led many analysts to conclude that Washington’s long-standing sanctions policy against Tehran has finally worked. This has led to calls for even more “crippling” sanctions against Iran during this sensitive time of heightened diplomacy, with proponents arguing that this will get the “already down” Iranians to totally capitulate on all outstanding differences with the West.

This might sound reasonable to casual observers. But the sanctions hawks are overlooking more than a little history.

Missed Opportunities

The foremost fact about the Iranian nuclear program—one that might surprise people who constantly hear about that Iranian “nuclear weapons program,” or that the Iranians are forever “six months away from having the bomb”—is that Iran does not even have a nuclear weapons program.

There has never really been any serious doubt about this either, at least as far as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is concerned. The IAEA’s regular reports on Iran’s nuclear enrichment activities, which it has intensively inspected for nearly 10 years, have never provided any evidence of Iran developing nuclear weapons. Western intelligence agencies too have long maintained that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program.

Iran’s nuclear activities first came to international spotlight in 2002, when the Iranians were allegedly caught “red-handed” with an illicit nuclear program. However, while Iran was indeed pursing a nuclear program at this time, it was not, as per the tenets of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), required to disclose any of its nuclear facilities until six months before nuclear material would actually be introduced to any of its facilities, a threshold that was never reached.

Regardless, the Iranians arguably went above and beyond their international obligations to ease international concern during this time and, under the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami, froze all of their nuclear enrichment activities. Additionally, they signed onto the NPT’s “additional protocol,” which required the country to give advance notice of future facilities to the IAEA and to adhere to more intensive inspections.

In 2003, the Iranians went on to lay the framework for negotiations aimed at a grand compromise with the United States. In a letter sent through the Swiss Embassy to Washington, the Iranians put almost all matters of dispute with the United States on the negotiating table.

The offer, which the Bush administration refused, would have seen Iran agreeing to full cooperation on nuclear safeguards, ending “material support” to Palestinian resistance groups such as Hamas, and accepting the Saudi Arab peace initiative, which effectively recognized Israel by advocating a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In return, the Iranians wanted recognition of Iran’s legitimate security interests in the region, a halt to hostile U.S. behavior, recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium on its soil, and the abolishment of all sanctions. In effect, they wanted what they have always wanted since the 1979 Islamic Revolution: for the United States to recognize the Islamic Republic as a legitimate government and to acknowledge its role and interests as a regional power in the Middle East.

The Iranians resumed enrichment in 2005 after what they said was the failure of European-led negotiations to build confidence and reach a resolution that would allow for peaceful enrichment on Iranian soil—a right Iran claimed under the NPT. The Iranians went their own way, dismissing Western “red lines” and expanding their nuclear enrichment program. This resulted in the first round of UN Security Council sanctions being imposed on Iran in 2006.

Soon after this, an effort was made by then-Secretary General of the IAEA, Mohammad Elbaradei, to resolve the Iranian nuclear standoff. Elbaradei suggested a deal wherein Iran would give up industrial-scale enrichment and limit its enrichment program to a small-scale pilot facility, and agree to import higher enriched nuclear fuel from Russia. Iran actually responded positively to this proposal, but the offer was dismissed by the Bush administration, which vowed not to approve of any deal that allowed enrichment inside Iran.

In 2010, another diplomatic opportunity arose that prominent political scientist Stephen Walt has said could have been “a step towards the solution of the whole Iranian nuclear program.” Brokered by Turkey and Brazil, rising powers that wanted to enter the world stage by helping to solve the Iranian nuclear dispute, the deal would have seen Iran exchanging large amounts of its stockpiles of low-enriched uranium for small amounts of medium-enriched uranium.

Iran has long argued that it needs medium-enriched uranium (which can be converted to weapons-grade uranium much more easily) to operate a medical research reactor in Tehran that creates vitally needed cancer medicine. To the surprise of many, Iran accepted the deal, and the stage was suddenly set for a potential solution to the Iranian nuclear impasse.

However, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quickly poured cold water on the whole affair and condemned the deal, worrying that it would undermine support for new sanctions the United States was pushing for against Iran. These new sanctions were soon ushered through the UN Security Council by the United States, where Turkey and Brazil (then rotating members of the council) voted against them.

The Changing Landscape

The argument that sanctions have prompted Iran’s more conciliatory stance today ignores these past overtures. At several junctures in the past 10 years—well before current sanctions were in place—Iran put more concessions on the table than most analysts think it would be willing to offer today. In trying to ascertain what the next diplomatic steps with Iran should be, U.S. diplomats and decision-makers should be cognizant of these previous missed opportunities.

Iran’s “new” strategy is more a consequence of the election of Hassan Rouhani than of sanctions. Rouhani ran on a platform stressing international reconciliation and serious diplomacy aimed at resolving concerns over the country’s nuclear program. He has since brought back more or less the same reformist team that was responsible for the concessions Iran offered 10 years ago—the most it has ever been willing to make.

So far, the Supreme Leader seems to have given Rouhani’s effort his blessing. But there is no reason to believe that if the Iranian people had voted for a more hardline candidate back in June—such as Saeed Jalili, who ran on platform of resistance to Western demands—Iran’s nuclear policy would be the same as it is right now under Rouhani.

There are also a few new geo-strategic factors that make a negotiated settlement with Iran more likely today. Perhaps foremost is that regional power dynamics have drastically changed in the Middle East compared to what they were 10 years ago. Iranian influence now stretches from Afghanistan to Lebanon—thanks in no small part to the U.S.-led wars of the past decade and a half.

But the United States and Iran now have more shared interests in the region than differences, particularly in preserving a stable Iraq and Afghanistan, checking the spread of Wahhabi extremism, and ensuring the free flow of oil out of the Persian Gulf, among others.

While there are certainly elements in the Iranian government that would not support any kind of cooperation between the United States and Iran, key Iranian officials and stakeholders have again and again proven their willingness to work with the United States where Washington’s agenda has overlapped with Tehran’s.

Examples abound. They include Iranian support for U.S. efforts in Bosnia in the 1990s (Iran sent arms to the Bosnians at the request of the Clinton administration, and the critical support Iran lent the United States during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (they helped oust both governments and have propped up new governments to replace them).

Iran has also at times offered the United States olive branches that were turned down. In the early 1990s the United States reneged on its part of a deal by refusing to release frozen Iranian assets after Iran mediated the release of American hostages in Lebanon. An offer by pragmatic former President Hashemi Rafsanjani for U.S. oil companies to invest in Iran’s oil fields was also spurned by President Clinton in the mid-1990s. Then of course there are the numerous missed opportunities at nuclear diplomacy since.

The United States has long sought to isolate Iran, but it has failed. The Islamic Republic continues to exist more than 30 years after the revolution that created it, and plays a bigger role in the Middle East today than it ever has before. With the rise of theocratic governments throughout the region, the U.S. policy of not recognizing Islamist governments is simply no longer feasible. And given the potential benefits of rapprochement with Iran, it’s not advisable either.

A “Win-Win” Deal

What the Iranians want is U.S. recognition, both for their government and for their legitimate interests in the Middle East—this is what their 2003 proposal was about, and it’s what their offer for talks now is about. Now that the United States is negotiating a potentially similar offer from Iran—even as Iran’s position in the region is far stronger, and its nuclear program far more developed than it was 10 years ago—Washington simply cannot afford to let this opportunity fall through.

It is critical for policymakers to understand at this point that sanctions—as a tool to coerce other nations to change their policies against their interests—are rarely effective. While sanctions have badly damaged Iran’s economy, the Iranians have adapted accordingly, a process that has been painful but not fatal. Most importantly, sanctions have failed to change Iran’s nuclear calculus, with the Iranians essentially offering the same thing now that they have been offering for the past decade.

Iran’s leaders are prepared to limit Iran’s domestic enrichment to the 5-percent level, sign onto the additional protocol of the NPT, subject their nuclear facilities to more rigorous inspection, and convert their existing stockpiles of 20-percent enriched uranium (which can more easily be converted to weapons-grade 90-percent enriched uranium) to fuel rods. In exchange, the Iranians want what they have always wanted: a recognition of their right to enrich uranium on their own soil (at the 5-percent level), the removal of sanctions, and a clear endgame to the dispute that puts to rest their worry that the United States is really after regime change.

If some sort of agreement with Iran over its nuclear program reached, the stage will be set to engage Iran on other regional issues. A mutually beneficial rapprochement between Iran and the United States could very well serve as the best security guarantee for American interests in the region for years to come.

Sina Toossi holds BA degrees in Economics and Political Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is currently a graduate student in Comparative and Regional Studies at American University’s School of International Service, with a regional concentration in the Middle East. He is currently an intern at the Institute for Policy Studies.

A version of this article originally appeared on Foreign Policy in Focus.

Guest Commentary: The Syrian War and America’s Moral Authority

It’s my pleasure to introduce the first of several guest commentaries The Red Fury will be running during my hiatus. In this post, author Navid Zarrinnal examines the proposal for Western military intervention in Syria, showing how the liberal case for war is deeply entrenched in the logic of empire.

– KS

A young Tunisian man, paralyzed by economic hardship, set himself on fire to protest the wretched condition in which he toiled, and in his martyrdom, he echoed the plight of millions of youth across the world, who, caught up in for-profit capitalism and a global recession suffer from unemployment, underemployment, or are forced to work what an anthropologist, David Graeber, calls “bullshit jobs.”[1] The courageous act of the young Tunisian man, Mohamad Bouazizi, became the catalyst for the Arab Spring. After his self-immolation, peoples in Tunisia and across the Arab world took to the streets to challenge the political-economic order that colonial geopolitics had left behind.

As the Arab Spring unfolded, I was enrolled at an American law school. In international law courses in particular, the struggle of Arab reformers and revolutionaries became a topic for discussion. Aside from me, my international human rights law class was an all white classroom. A few among my colleagues had a basic familiarity with the Arab world, but most knew almost nothing about it. Nonetheless, the proliferation of information around the Arab Spring had sparked some interest in every fellow classmate. Raised for class discussion was the proposed military intervention in Libya; students grappled with 1) Whether based on the rules of international law the U.S. has a legal basis to intervene in Libya; and 2) Assuming such a legal basis exists, should the U.S. militarily intervene in Libya?

Students seemed to agree that based on international legal rules, specifically Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, there is a strong legal argument for intervention.[2] Moreover, the U.N. Security Council had already authorized member states “to take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.”[3] The more pressing question was—assuming that there indeed was a legal basis for military intervention—should the U.S. militarily intervene?

The response was overwhelmingly positive. Except from one student who took a conservative approach—that intervention will be too costly and “we” do not have the moral obligation to help everyone—the rest of my colleagues called for intervention. “We” cannot sit and watch as an evil dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, slaughters his own population, the pro-intervention students claimed, so “we” have the moral obligation to act and militarily intervene to stop him. Today, a similar way of thinking is being repeated with Syria. The Obama administration is now telling the American public that the U.S. has a moral obligation to stop Bashar al-Assad, based on the allegation that Assad has targeted his own population with chemical weapons.

What my colleagues failed to account for in the case of Libya, and what the Obama administration ignores in the case of Syria, is the utter absence of American moral authority to intervene. Concerning bloody conflicts and military interventions, the U.S. has not been a benign actor, and worse, it acts with a high degree of hypocrisy, something the Obama administration and the U.S. propaganda machinery—from NPR to Fox News— are careful not to point out.

Even if we accept the Obama administration’s allegation that Assad used chemical weapons, the U.S. should be one of the last states to assert the moral high ground for an intervention—from chemical weapons used against civilians during Iraq’s occupation, with their resulting birth defects [4], to an American-assisted Saddam who, with U.S. knowledge and aid, used chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers [5], to many other instances, the U.S. has used and aided other actors’ use of chemical weapons. John Kerry would have been more honest with the American public, then, if instead of saying that “the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity,”[6] he had said: “the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity [except when we are the killers].”

The hypocrisy of the United States government and its not so benign motivation for intervention should be rather obvious and uncontroversial. Nonetheless, U.S. government and propaganda machinery do an excellent job to conceal the obvious. With the obvious out of sight, the American people— including my law school colleagues— fall into the trap of thinking that U.S. interventions in the Middle East and the Arab Spring are benign, for the good of the people.

Western imperialism, mistook for benign intervention, is a major cause for violence in the contemporary Middle East. Western imperialism did not merely inflict the Middle East with economic poverty and psychological insecurity, but also with a debilitating dichotomy between secularism and Islamism; a divisive political dichotomy, which is primarily the product of Western domination, with disastrous consequences for peace and unity in the Middle East in general and in Syria in particular. The secular/Islamist divide, which serves as the underlying ideological reason behind Syria’s civil war fueled by neoliberal economic reforms, is a colonial legacy and its violence is still being played out. And, add to that the legacy of American imperialism in Iraq: Al Qaeda-inspired Islamists who are now moving into Syria in their attempt to overthrow Assad’s government.[7]

The Obama administration then should give up the moral high ground and hold its head in humility while it contemplates the ill effects of past interventions. This, it will not do. But future generations will, insha’allah.

Navid Zarrinnal is a reluctant commentator on Western-Islamic relations and the contemporary Middle East. In his free time, he attempts to make sense of where he falls ideologically. You can connect with him via Facebook.