I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the buildup to the Iraq War exactly ten years ago, and the efforts by so many of us to halt the march to madness. I posted some reflections on Ten Years After Iraq yesterday on the God’s Politics blog at Sojourners. Click here to read them.
The fatwa from the Ayatollah last week blew away any near-term chance of a diplomatic opening with Iran. Vice President Biden’s earlier affirmation of a willingness to talk and Foreign Minister Salehi’s positive reply the next day briefly raised hopes, but the Leader’s dismissal abruptly ended any optimism.
The underlying need for a negotiated solution remains, however, and will grow more urgent if as expected talk of possible military action resurfaces in coming months. The core of a successful U.S. bargaining position and the outline of an eventual agreement with Iran have been identified by independent experts for many years. The political will for pursuing such a settlement does not exist right now in Washington, but it is important nonetheless to state the truth, even if decision makers refuse to listen.
Imposing more pressure on Iran will not work. This approach has been tried repeatedly for years but has not halted the advance of Iran’s nuclear program. Sanctions have caused serious harm to the Iranian economy but have not changed the regime’s political character. On the contrary, the octogenarian rulers in Iran seem to have grown even more reactionary and unyielding.
To break through the Leader’s reluctance will take a significant initiative from the United States. We know what we want from Tehran: binding limits on its nuclear program, assurances that it is not building a bomb, and more rigorous international monitoring. What are we prepared to offer in return?
If Tehran permits more intrusive inspections and guarantees the peaceful character of its nuclear program, the United States should accept Iranian enrichment and begin to lift sanctions. With each step toward greater Iranian transparency we should further ease sanctions, aiming toward the normalization of economic and political relations.
Reaching these goals will require a long journey, given the historical animosity between Washington and Tehran and the divisiveness of these issues. A negotiated solution is indispensable, though, and is the only way to prevent proliferation and avoid war.
The White House claims that the ‘clock is ticking’ toward a possible showdown with Iran over its nuclear program. No one wants a nuclear-armed Iran, but U.S. intelligence agencies report that Iran is not currently building nuclear weapons and does not pose an immediate nuclear threat. Instead of focusing on diplomacy however, international officials are wasting time wrangling over minor technical matters of questionable validity.
The latest ‘dispute’ is over claims that Iran conducted nuclear-related tests at its large Parchin military production complex near Tehran. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is demanding access to a small area at the military site. Evidence of a connection between Iran’s nuclear program and its military forces would be very worrisome and a matter of immediate concern, but that is not the issue here. The concerns about Parchin are based on undisclosed ‘information from a member state’ and are focused on a single building at one site rather than the larger nuclear program.
A recent analysis of the dispute from the highly respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) indicates that “less has been going on … than meets the eye” and that the case for visiting the site “is not as clear-cut or compelling as some experts and officials portray it.” The SIPRI analysis received scant attention in the press and was ignored by policymakers, but it deserves to be weighed carefully.
Here are a few of its observations:
- The claims about an alleged explosive testing chamber in a building at the site is not based on physical evidence but on a computer-assisted drawing that was published in a news story using information provided by an undisclosed eyewitness. (Remember the false claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the drawings of alleged Iraqi mobile weapons labs that turned out not to exist?)
- If the alleged chamber exists it is a “white elephant,” according to the analysis, and would not be appropriate for explosives testing. Underground tunnels located nearby would be much cheaper and easier for that purpose. (Why isn’t the IAEA expressing concern about those tunnels?)
- Reports about Iran scrubbing the site and demolishing the building of concern are incorrect. Google Earth satellite images reproduced in the analysis clearly show that the building remains standing.
The Parchin issue has become increasingly divisive and is clouding the larger debate about how to contain Iran’s nuclear program and prevent a military confrontation. Western officials complain that Iran is delaying the negotiation process to buy time for its nuclear buildup, but Western officials are unnecessarily complicating the process by wrangling over dubious technical claims. Diplomats should clear the air and focus on what matters – political negotiations to resolve the standoff.
I am encouraged by the nominations of Vietnam veterans Chuck Hagel and John Kerry to the top cabinet posts of Defense Secretary and Secretary of State. It feels like a long overdue acknowledgment and recognition of the experiences of our generation. Perhaps it will reflect and reinforce the deep skepticism toward war many of us learned from serving in the military during that time.
Our country is usually safer and less prone to sanctify military action when our decision-makers have experienced the suffering and horrors of war. Spare us the arm-chair warriors (‘chicken hawks’ the veterans derisively call them) sacrificing soldier lives for geopolitical fantasies.
When I saw the photos published in last week’s New York Times of Hagel and Kerry in their class A uniforms, so young and uncertain, I could see myself many years ago. Like Hagel, I was an enlisted man, never rising above the rank of Spec 4, the same as Hagel’s rank in the photo.
Hagel and Kerry were on the front lines of battle and were wounded in combat. I was stationed safely back in the States playing in the army band. But we were part of the same turbulent, perplexing experience of serving in an unpopular and unjust war.
Vietnam shaped our lives profoundly. As he was medevaced out of the country, Hagel vowed “to do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war.” Kerry returned to civilian life to become a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, testifying in 1971 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
I spoke out against the war as an active duty soldier, part of the GI peace movement that spread through the military in those years. I spent my time when not on duty circulating petitions and organizing protests among fellow soldiers. When military commanders punished us for being ‘troublemakers,’ we filed a law suit in federal court to defend our First Amendment rights.
The Vietnam experience drove me to spend my life trying to prevent war and now to researching and teaching ways of building peace and resolving conflicts nonviolently.
I hope Hagel and Kerry will bring more realistic, less militaristic perspectives to U.S. military and foreign policy. Perhaps our nation can finally learn the lessons of Vietnam (and also of Iraq and Afghanistan), to avoid the temptation of war and focus on building peace through international cooperation.
President Obama has touted his administration’s efforts to impose ‘crippling’ sanctions on Iran. Congress has pressed for even stronger measures, and has included additional sanctions against Iran’s shipping industry in this year’s Defense Authorization Act. Mark Wallace of United Against Nuclear Iran wants to go further and has called for a “total economic blockade.” Lost in the frenzy to impose punishments on Iran is a consideration of how these measures are hurting ordinary people and undermining the presumed purposes of U.S. policy.
The increasingly draconian sanctions on Iran are supposedly directed at government leaders, but the greatest impacts are being felt by civilians. Especially harmful are the restrictions on Iran’s banking sector, which have significantly curtailed the country’s ability to finance imports. Among other consequences, these measures are making it very difficult to purchase advanced medical supplies and pharmaceuticals. U.S. newspapers report that chemotherapy drugs are becoming hard to obtain and increasingly unavailable. Medicines for people suffering from AIDS, hemophilia and other acute conditions are also in short supply, according to Al Jazeera.
Broad trade sanctions are, in effect, a form of collective punishment. They impose hardships on innocent people who have committed no offense and have no power over the religious clerics who decide their country’s nuclear policies. Collective punishment is considered immoral in warfare and is specifically prohibited in the Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Broad trade sanctions are politically counterproductive. They undermine the moral legitimacy of nonproliferation efforts and weaken the prospects for democratic reform. They make life more difficult for reformers and human rights advocates in Iran, the very people Western governments claim to support. Many of the most courageous critics of the current regime, including Nobel Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi and former opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossain Moussavi, have spoken out against further sanctions.
Instead of adopting ever more severe unilateral trade measures, the United States should focus on implementing the targeted sanctions adopted by the UN. These measures freeze the financial assets and ban the travel of approximately 100 Iranian officials and entities that are directly responsible for the country’s nuclear program. They have the unanimous support of the Security Council, including China and Russia. The political support for these targeted sanctions could erode, however, if the humanitarian costs of unilateral sanctions continue to mount. The social harm caused by trade sanctions undermines the prospects for nonproliferation and human rights progress in Iran.
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According to Jonathan Landay of McClatchy Newspapers, the High Peace Council in Afghanistan is developing an ambitious plan of direct talks with the Taliban that could cede to them political control of their southern and eastern strongholds. The plan calls for a ceasefire and negotiations between insurgents and the Afghan government next year. The government of Pakistan is helping to spearhead the initiative and select the leaders of the Taliban and other rebel groups who would take part in the negotiations.
The plan is contained in a Peace Council document, obtained by McClatchy, which states that by 2015, insurgent groups “will have given up armed opposition, transformed from military entities into political parties, and [will be] actively participating in the country’s political and constitutional processes, including national elections…. NATO/ISAF forces will have departed from Afghanistan, leaving the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) as the only legitimate armed forces delivering security and protection to the Afghan population.”
News of the peace blueprint combines with other recent developments: Pakistan’s release of Taliban prisoners, the beginning of talks between the Taliban and their historic enemies in the Northern Alliance, and indications that Obama administration may be lowering expectations for a U.S. military role beyond 2014. Together they suggest that a genuine peace process may be in the offing. Many of the essential ingredients are there—including power sharing between insurgents and the Afghan government.
Opponents of the war should support plans for negotiations and power sharing, but we should also insist on human rights guarantees, protection of women’s rights, and a greater role for Afghan civil society, including women. Political negotiations should be accompanied by an inclusive process of consultation and mobilization among Afghan civilians, so that the governance system in Afghanistan reflects the needs and interests of all elements of society, not just the men with guns.
Pakistan’s weekend release of several Taliban prisoners is a clear indication that insurgents and their Pakistani military supporters are ready for talks. The Haqqani network announced last week that it is willing to participate in peace talks under Afghan Taliban leadership. The Obama administration should capitalize on these developments and press for a negotiated end to the war.
Pakistan’s release of Taliban prisoners came in response to a three-day visit to Islamabad by the Afghan High Peace Council, the body created in 2010 by the Kabul government to oversee peace negotiations with the Taliban. The United States could encourage the process by following Pakistan’s lead and acting on the proposed transfer of Taliban detainees from Guantánamo to Qatar. Turning over the handful of Taliban prisoners being held in Guantánamo would further boost prospects for peace talks.
The administration says that the local parties—the Kabul government, the insurgents, and Pakistan—must take the lead in negotiating a peace agreement, but U.S. leadership is indispensable for achieving progress. Some in Congress and the administration are wary of negotiating with the Taliban for fear of conferring legitimacy on the insurgents. Women in Afghanistan worry that negotiations will empower those who want to turn back the clock on the human rights and development gains of the past decade. These are legitimate concerns, but they are not an argument for opposing diplomacy. The alternative—continued armed conflict and perhaps civil war—will mean further human losses and will jeopardize and ultimately undermine the prospects for development and human rights. Renewed civil war would be a damning verdict on a costly decade of U.S. intervention.
Opinion polls show that Afghans overwhelmingly oppose a return to Taliban rule. The best guarantee against a Taliban takeover is the inclusion of the Afghan people in a peace process. The Afghan Women’s Network and other civil society groups have called for an inclusive process that provides a role for all significant sectors of Afghan society. Women in particular should be guaranteed a seat at the table. Research shows that peace agreements in which civil society groups have an active role in monitoring and implementation the terms of a settlement are more likely to succeed.
The withdrawal of U.S. military forces will be crucial to the prospects for successful negotiations. The Pentagon is pressing for a security agreement with the Kabul government that reportedly allows for the long-term presence of as many as 20,000 U.S. troops. That could be a deal-killer, since insurgents have insisted that U.S. forces leave. Maintaining a limited number of non-combat troops during the initial transition period may be appropriate—as security assurance for the Kabul regime, and as bargaining leverage to gain Taliban cooperation—but Washington must be willing to accept an agreement that includes complete military withdrawal. We should also be prepared to support the deployment of a Muslim-led interim security force to monitor and implement a peace agreement if the local parties request it.
Many obstacles stand in the way of a negotiated settlement. Even if formal talks begin soon, the process is likely to take many months, perhaps years. All the more reason to get started. The stage is being set, and the time to act is now. President Obama should use some of the political capital from his impressive election victory to exercise leadership for long-term peace.