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A New Era at the State Department?

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With the election of Donald Trump as president, a new era may be emerging at the State Department. Or not.

Ever since the partition of UN Mandate Palestine and the creation of Israel, the State Department has promoted a grievance-based approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict.  It views Palestinian deprivation (of statehood, dreams, etc.) as the chief obstacle to peace.  U.S. diplomatic efforts, therefore, have focused on appeasing those grievances.  One year into the Trump administration, there are signs that this is changing.

After World War II the culture that would define the State Department’s entire Middle East outlook was developed almost single-handedly by Loy Henderson, director of the Office of Near Eastern, African and South Asian Affairs.  Henderson filled the Office with specialists known as “Arabists” because of their love of the Arabic language and Arab culture.  They suffered from what Robert D. Kaplan, in his seminal work on the topic, calls “localitis” and “clientitis,” and their sympathies with Muslims were often accompanied by a rejection of the West and especially of Israel.  In his Memoirs Harry S. Truman wrote that State’s “specialists on the Near East were almost without exception unfriendly to the idea of a Jewish state.”  He also noted that “Some of them were also inclined to be anti-Semitic.”

After the Six-Day War, when most Arab countries severed relations with the U.S. and closed embassies, many Arabists found themselves without foreign posts.  Their domination of the State Department subsided, and they were replaced by a new group – the “peace processors” – who were not immersed in Arab culture but rather in diplomatic culture.  By the 1980s they dominated the State Department, and they still do.

Though their motives may differ, the peace processors share the Arabists’ trust that the Palestinians will negotiate rationally.  In pursuit of the ultimate peace deal, they ignore or excuse Palestinian diplomats who insist that Israel has no right to exist, as though it were a negotiating ploy rather than a deeply-felt principle.

The cohesion of the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein in Desert Shield/Storm, heralded as a major diplomatic achievement, spurred a renewed faith that the diplomatic process itself can solve even the most intransigent of problems, of which the Israel-Palestinian conflict loomed large.  The peace processors have always been driven by the theory that the right combination of Israeli concessions (land, water, money) will end Palestinian hostilities.  They continue to downplay Palestinian rejectionism while emphasizing Palestinian cooperation.

Even the 2003 bombing of a State Department convoy in Gaza (the vehicles were carrying U.S. officials interviewing Palestinian students for Fulbright Scholarships) elicited little more than a perfunctory telephone call from Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Palestinian Authority (PA) urging it to crack down on militants.

The peace processors endured through the Obama years.  With John Kerry as Secretary of State, they thrived.  In a 2016 Oxford Union speech Kerry waxed poetic about peace-making, or as he called it, “the art of diplomacy – [which] is to define the interests of all the parties and see where the sweet spot is that those interests can come together and hopefully be able to thread a very thin needle.”  The problem, to continue Kerry’s mixed metaphor, is that under his leadership the State Department expended most of its energies massaging the Palestinian sweet spot and trying to thread its very thin needle.  Israeli interests, on the other hand, were largely ignored, and Israel was often blamed for Palestinian hostilities.

Donald Trump campaigned promising a different approach to Israel.  He chose Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, a diplomat with no foreign policy record and few known political opinions.  Tillerson began his tenure at the default State Department position – treating the PA and its leader Mahmoud Abbas as legitimate and trustworthy peace partners, and ignoring or downplaying evidence to the contrary.  This seemed to change when the Trump administration’s efforts to negotiate were rebuffed.  The May 2017 meeting in Bethlehem, when the president reportedly accused Abbas of lying to him, may have been the turning point.

In November, Tillerson announced the closure of the PLO mission in Washington, D.C., in compliance with a U.S. law prohibiting any Palestinian attempts to bring a case against Israel at the International Criminal Court.  But when the PLO responded by threatening to cut off all contact with the U.S., the State Department rather obsequiously caved, announcing that the mission could remain open for a 90 day probationary period.  State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said the U.S. was “optimistic that at the end of this 90-day period, the political process may be sufficiently advanced that the president will be in a position to allow the PLO office to resume full operations.”

Subsequent events further suggest a change in U.S. Israel policy, especially the announced plan to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and the cutting of U.S. funding to UNRWA.  Trump has also threatened to cut all aid to Palestinians, and at Davos in January he said that Palestinian disrespect for Vice President Mike Pence would cost them as well.  Under normal circumstances, one might infer that these are coherent policy redirections.  But it is not unreasonable to believe that they are impulsive reactions to perceived insults.  They may also be bargaining chips in the president’s famed deal-making art.

To be clear, the U.S. embassy should absolutely be moved to Jerusalem, and U.S. funds should not support UNESCO which is waging a diplomatic war against Israel, nor UNRWA which regularly incites violence against Israel.

But these moves from the top down are not necessarily permanent.  No one really believes Abbas will terminate all contact with the U.S.  In fact, the PLO’s man in Washington, Husam Zomlot, signalled in an interview just days ago that he’s ready to talk: “It’s not like I am not speaking to them. My phone is open.”  Like Trump, Abbas too is positioning for a better deal.  When he comes back to his senses and apologizes, perhaps even personally thanks Donald Trump for reengaging, the State Department’s peace processors will awaken from their drowse with a new Oslo, a new Road Map to Peace, and Israel will be squeezed again.  As Daniel Pipes writes, “the American door is permanently open to Palestinians and when they wise up, some fabulous gift awaits them in the White House.”  Maybe next time there will be pressure to repeat Ariel Sharon’s mistake and force all Israelis out of the West Bank, and after that out of East Jerusalem, and after that, who knows?   Pressuring Israel to give up more land and money and make their nation less secure is the only strategy the peace processors know.

There’s no doubt that Donald Trump’s election initiated a major disruption at the State Department.  Many long-serving senior officials resigned immediately before or after inauguration day.  The hum of diplomats complaining that their expertise is being ignored has continued.  When Elizabeth Shackelford (lauded by Foreign Policy a “rising star at the State Department”) resigned very publicly in early December, she complained that State had “ceded to the Pentagon our authority to drive US foreign policy.”  The question is, will disruption lead to genuine change?

If outgoing senior diplomats are replaced with careerists and entrenched junior peace processors, the Trump shake-up will be just sound and fury.  On the other hand, bringing in qualified experts from outside the State Department rank-and-file might lead to meaningful and important changes.  If the rumor is true that David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy will be the new Deputy Assistant for Near East Affairs, it’s a good start.

Genuine change at the State Department will require more than one year of the unpredictable Trump administration.  U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman recently began urging the State Department to stop using the term “occupation”.  When the State Department complies, we’ll know something big has happened.  Until then, celebrations are premature.

A.J. Caschetta is a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Middle East

Iraq Opens Hands to the Pope Francis’ Historic Visit

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Copyright © Dicastero per la Comunicazione - Vatican Media

The world looks forward to Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq which is considered the first papal trip represented by the Roman Catholic Church to the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, despite spreading the second wave of COVID-19 and the security situation in Iraq. This expected visit has an important impact on highlighting the challenges and disasters of humiliation, the sectarian war and displacing people, Yazidis persecution, and fleeing the Christian minorities that faced Iraq during all these past years after the US invasion occurred in 2003.

The three-day-visit is considered as the message of peace after years of war and violence, referring that the Pope’s visit is as a pilgrim to the cradle of civilization. The papal visit includes Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul- Qaraqosh, and Ur city. The trip comes after 18 months as the pandemic restricts his movement, and it is the first visit to the Middle East when he visited the U.A.E in February 2019 where he met and celebrated in front of 180,000 people at the Zayed Sports City stadium in Abu Dhabi.

The papal visit was intended to occur twenty years ago when St. John Paul II tried to visit Mesopotamia during Saddam’s regime, but the endeavors failed to complete that proposed trip. “The people of Iraq are waiting for us. The people waited for St. John Paul II who was not permitted to go. We cannot disappoint them twice”, said the Pope.

In a video message addressed by the Pope to the people of Iraq, he expressed his happiness and longing to meet the people who suffered from war, scourges, and death during all these years. “I long to meet you, to look at your faces and to visit your blessed ancient land and the cradle of civilization,” the Pope said.

It is expected that the purpose of the Pope’s visit is to preserve the rest of the Christians in Iraq. According to the estimation of the charity aid of the Church in Need, the numbers of Christians have decreased from 1.4 million to under 250,000 since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, especially in the cities of northern Iraq. Many Christians were killed and fled from 2014 to 2017 due to the Islamic State occupation and due to their atrocities, persecution, and violence against the Christian areas. The Pope yearns for meeting the dwindling Christian communities in Mosul, Qaraqosh, and Nineveh plains where these regions had suffered from the atrocities of ISIS in 2014 and people had been compelled to flee.

The world is waiting for the most significant historic meeting between the 90-year-old Shia Muslim cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and the 84-year-old Pope Francis in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf. The expected meeting is seen as a real chance to enhance the bonds of fraternity between the Muslims and Christians and to lighten the impact of the islamophobia concept that swept Europe and America due to the terrorism actions that happened in Europe. This expected meeting that will be by Saturday signifies a historic moment when the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani meets Pope Francis, illustrating the fraternal bonds to make people live in peace and tranquility.

Back in February 2019, the Pontiff Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque and the most prestigious leader in Sunni Islam, agreed and signed the declaration of fraternity, affirming peace among all nations. The two parties in this document adhere to fight extremism in every place in the world. If the Pontiff and the Grand Ayatollah sign a document like the declaration of fraternity, this will give Najaf’s Marjiya a very great impact, and this move will be seen as the first step to decrease the religious tensions and fill the gap of the clash of civilization. This document, if it is enacted, will have a great impact to make peace prevailing and encouraging Muslims and Christians to live in peaceful coexistence.

Ur, which is the oldest city in the world, is to be visited by the pontiff. It is considered the biblical birthplace of Ibraham, the common prophet to the Christians, Muslims, and Judaism and the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is expected that there will be prayers in Ziggurat where this place is one of UNESCO world heritage sites. This visit to this historic site will help the landmark to polarize people from Iraq and outside to visit it after years of negligence and ignorance attention to its importance and the vital role that can help Iraq to increase the public income.

The papal visit has many different messages to the people of Iraq. Firstly, the expected meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani reflects the fraternal and human stances, and this meeting underlines the important role played by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani after the US-led-invasion in 2003. Secondly, his visit to Ur to pray there is a message of the peaceful coexistence between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, trying to point out that all these three religions emerged from one source. Thirdly, the Pope endeavors to be with the Christians who suffer from the past events of persecution, humiliation, and atrocities. His presence among them is a message of tranquility, serenity, peace, and contentment to live in Iraq with the Muslims and to abandon fighting against others. Finally, the Pope’s visit to Iraq pays the world’s attention to the religious importance of Iraq and the significant role that can be played by Iraq.

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Restart Iran Policy by Stopping Tehran’s Influence Operations

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Another US administration is trying to figure out its Iran policy. And, as always, the very regime at the core of the riddle is influencing the policy outcome. Through the years, the clerical rulers of Iran have honed the art of exploiting America’s democratic public sphere to mislead, deceive, confuse, and influence the public and government.

Yet Washington still does not have a proper taxonomy of policy antidotes when it comes to Tehran’s influence operations.

Arguments dictated by Iranian intelligence services echo in think tanks and many government agencies. These include the extremely misguided supposition that the murderous regime can be reformed or is a reliable negotiating partner for the West; or that there is no other alternative but to deal with the status quo.

How has Tehran been able to deceive some in the US into believing such nonsense? First, by relying on the policy of appeasement pursued by Western governments. And second, through its sophisticated influence operations facilitated by that policy.

Consider three recent instances.

First. Just last month, an Iranian “political scientist” was charged by the Justice Department for acting as an unregistered agent of Iran and secretly receiving money from its mission in New York. “For over a decade, Kaveh Afrasiabi pitched himself to Congress, journalists, and the American public … for the benefit of his employer, the Iranian government, by disguising propaganda as objective polic1y analysis and expertise,” the Justice Department noted.

Afrasiabi has an extensive body of published work and television appearances. In July 2020, according to the Justice Department, he linked many of his books and hundreds of articles in an email written to Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, saying: “Without [Zarif’s] support none of this would have been possible!”

Second. Across the Atlantic, one of Zarif’s official diplomats in Europe, Assadollah Assadi, was convicted and given a 20-year prison sentence by a Belgian court on February 4 for trying to bomb an opposition rally in the outskirts of Paris in June 2018.

Court documents revealed that Assadi crisscrossed Europe as Tehran’s intelligence station chief, paying and directing many agents in at least 11 European countries.

Assadi’s terrorist plot in 2018 was foiled at the last minute. The main target was Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Hundreds of Western lawmakers and former officials were also in attendance.

Third. Unable to harm its opposition through terrorism, the regime has expanded its influence operations against NCRI’s main constituent organization the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), which Tehran considers its arch nemesis.

For decades, the mullahs have misled, deceived, and confused America’s Iran policy by disseminating considerable disinformation about the democratic opposition. This has in turn resulted in bungled American responses to Tehran’s threats.

In a breaking revelation this month, a former Iranian intelligence operative wrote a letter to the UN Secretary General, outlining in glaring detail how the regime’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) recruits, pays, and controls dozens of agents across Europe to influence policy.

Forty-one-year-old Hadi Sani-Khani wrote that he was approached by intelligence agents who lured him into the Iranian embassy in Tirana, Albania (MEK’s headquarters). He said he wants to go back to Iran. On one condition, the embassy responded: Cooperate with the regime’s intelligence against the MEK. He subsequently met with the regime’s intelligence chief, Fereidoun Zandi, who coordinated a network of paid agents in Albania since 2014. The intelligence chief was later expelled by Albanian authorities along with the regime’s ambassador.

Khani was paid 500 euros per month to write and publish anti-MEK articles and also send copious amounts of similar propaganda to members of the European parliament. Dozens of websites are operated by Tehran’s intelligence, some of which are, astonishingly, undeclared sources for unsuspecting Western journalists, think tanks and government agencies when it comes to the MEK.

In many cases, reporters have met directly with the regime’s intelligence agents for their stories. In September 2018, for example, according to Khani, a reporter from German newspaper Der Spiegel traveled to Albania. Khani recalls: “We met the Der Spiegel reporter in a Café in Ramsa district in Zagozi square. Each of us then told her lies about the MEK which we had been given in preparation of the meeting. … [Later on,] she occasionally asked me questions about the MEK which I then raised with the embassy and provided her the response I received.”

Der Spiegel published the story on February 16, 2019, parts of which were copied from websites affiliated with Iran’s intelligence service. Following a lawsuit, a court in Hamburg ordered Der Spiegel to remove the defamatory segments of its article.

These same agents also met with a New York Times correspondent at the same Café, who subsequently wrote a piece against the MEK, regurgitating the very same allegations.

The mullahs’ influence operations are a serious obstacle to formulating an effective US policy toward Tehran. As long as the regime’s agents are allowed to exploit America’s public sphere, cultivate important relationships, infiltrate the media and think tanks, and influence serious policy deliberations in Washington through a flood of falsehoods, America will be at a substantial disadvantage.

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Middle East

China in the Middle East: Stepping up to the plate

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By defining Chinese characteristics as “seeking common ground while reserving differences,” a formula that implies conflict management rather than conflict resolution, Messrs. Sun and Wu were suggesting that China was seeking to prepare the ground for greater Chinese engagement in efforts to stabilize the Middle East, a volatile region that repeatedly threatens to spin out of control.

The scholars defined China’s goal as building an inclusive and shared regional collective security mechanism based on fairness, justice, multilateralism, comprehensive governance, and the containment of differences.

By implication, Messrs. Sun and Wu’s vision reflected a growing realization in China that it no longer can protect its mushrooming interests exclusively through economic cooperation, trade, and investment.

It also signalled an understanding that stability in the Middle East can only be achieved through an inclusive, comprehensive, and multilateral reconstructed security architecture of which China would have to be part.

Messrs. Sun and Wu’s article, published in a prominent Chine policy journal, was part of a subtle and cautious Chinese messaging that was directed towards players on all sides of the Middle East’s multiple divides.

To be clear, China, like Russia, is not seeking to replace the United States, certainly not in military terms, as a dominant force in the Middle East. Rather, it is gradually laying the groundwork to capitalize on a US desire to rejigger its regional commitments by exploiting US efforts to share the burden more broadly with its regional partners and allies.

China is further suggesting that the United States has proven to be unable to manage the Middle East’s myriad conflicts and disputes, making it a Chinese interest to help steer the region into calmer waters while retaining the US military as the backbone of whatever restructured security architecture emerges.

Implicit in the message is the assumption that the Middle East may be one part of the world in which the United States and China can simultaneously cooperate and compete; cooperate in maintaining regional security and compete on issues like technology.

That may prove to be an idealized vision. China, like the United States, is more likely to discover that getting from A to B can be torturous and that avoiding being sucked into the Middle East’s myriad conflicts is easier said than done.

China has long prided itself on its ability to maintain good relations with all sides of the divide by avoiding engagement in the crux of the Middle East’s at times existential divides.

Yet, building a sustainable security architecture that includes conflict management mechanisms, without tackling the core of those divides, is likely to prove all but impossible. The real question is at what point does China feel that the cost of non-engagement outweighs the cost of engagement?

The Middle East is nowhere close to entertaining the kind of approaches and policies required to construct an inclusive security architecture. Nevertheless, changes to US policy being adopted by the Biden administration are producing cracks in the posture of various Middle Eastern states, albeit tiny ones, that bolster the Chinese messaging.

Various belligerents, including Saudia Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey, but not Iran or Israel, at least when it comes to issues like Iran and the Palestinians, have sought to lower the region’s temperature even if fundamentals have not changed.

A potential revival of the 2015 international Iran nuclear agreement could provide a monkey wrench.

There is little doubt that any US-Iranian agreement to do so would focus exclusively on nuclear issues and would not include other agenda points such as ballistic missiles and Iranian support for non-state actors in parts of the Middle East. The silver lining is that ballistic missiles and support for non-state actors are issues that Iran would likely discuss if they were embedded in a discussion about restructured regional security arrangements.

This is where China may have a significant contribution to make. Getting all parties to agree to discuss a broader, more inclusive security arrangement involves not just cajoling but also assuaging fears, including whether and to what degree Chinese relations with an Iran unfettered by US sanctions and international isolation would affect Gulf states.

To be sure, while China has much going for it in the Middle East such as its principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of others, its affinity for autocracy, and its economic weight and emphasis on economic issues, it also needs to manage pitfalls. These include reputational issues despite its vaccine diplomacy, repression of the Uyghurs in the north-western province of Xinjiang, and discrimination against other Muslim communities.

China’s anti-Muslim policies may not be an immediate issue for much of the Muslim world, but they continuously loom as a potential grey swan.

Nevertheless, China, beyond doubt, alongside the United States can play a key role in stabilizing the Middle East. The question is whether both Beijing and Washington can and will step up to the plate.

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