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From Sadat to Saddam: The Decline of American Diplomacy in the Middle East- Book Review

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David Dunford was a long-serving US diplomat whose career in the Foreign Service spanned 1966 to 1995. His book chronicles his experience in the Middle East, from his 1981 appointment as head of the economic section at the US Embassy in Cairo to his time as ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman.  After retirement in 1995, Dunford was recalled several times to serve in Egypt, Iraq and South Korea.

Dunford attributes the decline of American diplomacy to the rise of the national security state after the trauma of 9/11. He contends that a “new generation of law enforcement and intelligence officials,” who had not had the experience or respect for diplomacy, came to lead their respective organization. Worse even, how by 2014 the “surveillance state was criminalizing ordinary diplomacy”.

The question that irks the author is how, despite unrivaled preponderant power, the US was not able to do better in its diplomatic achievement. Accordingly, the book uses the author’s “personal experiences to illuminate the reasons why” the US has not fared better.

Dunford outlines three purposes for writing this book. First,the uniqueness of diplomacy as a profession; second the meaning of decline of diplomacy to a professional diplomat; third, to show the young men and women who are interested in joining the Foreign Service what diplomacy is and what it means to be a career diplomat.

Dunford’s first post in the Middle East was Cairo, where he arrived in the summer of 1981. Unbeknownst to Dunford, who lacked any experience in Egyptian or Middle Eastern Affairs, a crisis was brewing in the host country. Four months after his arrival, President Sadat was gunned down by his own military officers during a military parade commemorating the October War.

The US Embassy in Cairo went into crisis mode to figure out the consequences of the assassination. Egypt weathered the storm, and the assassination was not a harbinger to a coup. The embassy’s biggest worry turned out to be how to organize the high-level US delegation to the funeral services for the fallen US ally. In one of the book’s anecdotes, the only crisis was seating Henry Kissinger next to an American teenager who had once been a personal guest of Sadat. Kissinger protested that he “hadn’t traveled several thousand miles to sit next to a bleeping kid”.

Egypt was the cornerstone of US foreign policy in the Middle East during Dunford’s tenure. When the author finished his tour in Egypt in 1984, he served as director of Egyptian affairs at Foggy Bottom. From his perch in Washington, DC, he managed the relationship with Cairo. He saw his job mostly as crisis management, including the 1985 seajacking of the Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists who shot and threw overboard a wheelchair-bound elderly Jewish American, Leon Klinghoffer.

The author provides a wider context for the violence that besets US policy in the Middle East, including Israel’s occupation of Arab lands and the invasion of Lebanon. Underthe Reagan administration, “The pro-Israel lobby was at the height of its power” and would have attacked the administration for suggesting “moral equivalence between Arab terrorism and Israeli actions”.

At Dunford’s next assignmentwas deputy chief of mission (DCM) in Riyadh. The lack of an ambassador there put him in charge of one of America’s largest embassies. An early diplomatic tussle arose over Washington concern about the Saudis purchasing Chinese intermediate ballistic missiles that could reach Israel. The Saudis, however, persuaded Reagan that they needed those missiles, to the dismay of the Department of the State.

Dunford resumed his DCM role when Chas Freeman, perhaps one of the best diplomats in the US foreign service, was appointed as ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Although Freeman foresaw Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and conveyed his thoughts to State, Washington was consumed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and paid little attention to the unfolding events in the Middle East. Sure enough, Saddam crossed the borders with Kuwait on the morning of August 2. The Middle East finally got Washington’s attention.

Of particular note is how much Secretary of State James Baker wanted to keep the diplomats at arm’s length and retain policy in his inner circle during the crisis. After the war ended, Ambassador Freeman “had put plenty of thoughts on paper but ideas originating outside Baker’s tight circle were not welcome”.

The last post for Dunford as a professional diplomat looked more like a reward than a chore, given Oman’s low ranking in Washington’s regional pecking order. Budget cuts under Bill Clinton eliminated the meager financial aid ($15 million per annum) to Oman; it was up to the ambassador to face the consequences.

In the concluding chapter, the author tackles the subject of the decline of US diplomacy. By decline, Dunford means the political leadership has utilized diplomacy less than the military and economic options. “We have used military force extensively since 9/11 attack and the results have been, at best, disappointing”, he declares.

The trauma of September 11 was one factor, but Israel was another. The author argues that James Bakerweakened regional bureaus, particularly the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, because he believed the officers there were “sympathetic to Arab positions and not sufficiently supportive of Israel”.

Dunford points to two other factors contributing to what he perceives as the decline of American diplomacy. First, the propagation of political appointments, special envoys, and representatives that replaced career diplomats deprived the US of professionals and experts on the various regions. Second, leaks of diplomatic correspondence and conversations made foreign leaders cagy about expressing their concerns to US diplomats.

Ambassador Dunford is a dedicated professional and the book – albeit marred by a few errors and typos — is an expression of devotion for his vocation. Unfortunately, despite the title, the book reads more like a memoir of the author’s long experience as a diplomat in the Middle East than an account of the decline of US diplomacy.

Dr. Albadr Alshateri was a professor at the UAE National Defense College in Abu Dhabi. He earned a Ph.D from the University of Michigan in comparative politics, international relations and political economy as well as two masters degrees in political science and in Middle Eastern and North African Studies. He holds a BA from Indiana University, where he studied political science and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, as well as a certificate in African studies. Dr. Alshateri has received numerous awards, including a prize for his dissertation entitled “The Political Economy of State Formation: The United Arab Emirates in Comparative Perspective”, from the Society for Arab Gulf Studies (USA). Dr. Alshateri has contributed articles to Al Ittihad Newspaper (Abu Dhabi), Al Khaleej Newspaper (Sharjah), The National (Abu Dhabi), American Diplomacy, and Gulf News (Dubai)

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Qatar World Cup offers lessons for human rights struggles

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It’s a good time, almost 12 years after the world soccer body, FIFA, awarded Qatar the 2022 World Cup hosting rights and five months before the tournament, to evaluate the campaign to reform the country’s erstwhile onerous labor system and accommodate fans whose lifestyles violate restrictive laws and/or go against deeply rooted cultural attitudes.

Ultimately the balance sheet shows a mixed bag even if one takes into account that Qatari autocracy has proven to be more responsive and flexible in responding to pressure by human rights and labour groups than its Gulf brothers in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

On the plus side, the initial wave of condemnation of the country’s repressive kafala labour system that put employees at the mercy of their employers persuaded Qatar to become the first Gulf state, if not the first Arab state, to engage with its critics.

Engagement meant giving human rights groups and trade unions access to the country, allowing them to operate and hold news conferences in Qatar, and involving them in drafting reforms and World Cup-related model labour contracts. This was unprecedented in a region where local activists are behind bars or worse and foreign critics don’t even make it onto an inbound flight.

The reforms were imperfect and not far-reaching enough, even if Qatar introduced significant improvements in the conditions for unskilled and semi-skilled workers.

Furthermore, on the plus side, the hosting rights sparked limited but nonetheless taboo-breaking discussions that touched on sensitive subjects such as LGBT rights and the granting of citizenship to non-nationals.

Qataris openly questioned the granting of citizenship to foreign athletes so they could be included in the Qatar national team for the 2016 Olympics rather than medical personnel and other professionals who had contributed to national welfare and development.

Hosting the World Cup has further forced Qatar, albeit in a limited fashion, to come to grips with issues like LGBT rights that do not simply violate the country’s laws but go against its social grain to produce an inclusive tournament.

In some ways, that may have been more difficult than reforming the labour regime if one considers the difference between standing up for democratic freedoms that may have broad public support and the recognition of LGBT rights. In contrast to democratic rights, opposition to LGBT rights is deeply engrained in Qatar and other Muslim societies. It would likely be socially rejected, even if they were enshrined in law.

The difference means that the defense of LGBT and other socially controversial rights forces activists and human and LGBT rights groups to rethink their strategies and adopt alternative, more long-term approaches.

It also means that they will have to embrace less Western-centric attitudes frequently prevalent in the campaign to reform Qatar’s labour system. Those attitudes were evident in debates that were also often skewed by bias, prejudice, bigotry, and sour grapes.

Moreover, the criticism often failed to consider the context. As a result, achieving results and pushing for reform was, to a degree, undermined by what appeared to be a ganging up on Qatar and a singling out of the Gulf state.

Labour is an example. Human rights groups and trade unions treated onerous labour conditions in Qatar, even if the World Cup turned it into a prime target, as uniquely Qatari rather than a global problem that manifests itself in other parts of the world such as Southeast Asia and even Western democracies like Britain. Recent reporting by The Guardian showed that expatriate medical and caregiver personnel face similar curtailing of rights and abuse in Britain.

By the same token, Qatar was taken to task for being slow in implementing its reforms and ensuring that they were applied not only to World Cup projects but nationwide.

The fact is that lagging enforcement of policies and legal changes is a problem across the broad spectrum of Qatari policies and reform efforts, including the Gulf state’s high-profile, fast-paced, mediation-driven foreign policy.

Qatar’s handling of illegal recruitment fees paid by workers is a case in point.

The Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, the Qatari organizer of the World Cup, has obliged companies it contracts to repay the fees without workers having to provide proof of payment. Companies have so far pledged to repay roughly USD$28.5 million to some 49,000 workers, $22 million of which have already been paid out.

It is a step the government could apply nationally with relative ease to demonstrate sincerity and, more fundamentally, counter the criticism.

Similarly, in response to complaints raised by human rights groups and others, the government could also offer to compensate families of workers who die on construction sites. Again, none of these measures would dent Qatari budgets but would earn the Gulf state immeasurable goodwill.

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‘Effort and patience’ required to restore Iran nuclear agreement

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A view from the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant in Iran. (file) Photo: IAEA/Paolo Contri

Despite diplomatic engagements, restoring the so-called Iran nuclear agreement continues to be hindered by political and technical differences, the UN political and peacebuilding chief told the Security Council on Thursday.
 

In the landmark accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – reached in 2015 between Iran, the United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom – Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear programme and open its facilities to international inspections in exchange for sanctions relief.

In 2018, then-President Trump withdrew the US from the agreement and reinstated the sanctions.

Achieving the landmark JCPOA took determined diplomacy. Restoring it will require additional effort and patience,” said UN political affairs chief, Rosemary DiCarlo.

Although the landmark Joint Commission to restore the Plan resumed in November 2021, she acknowledged that despite their determination to resolve the issues, the US and other participants are yet to return to “full and effective implementation of the Plan, and [Security Council] resolution 2231”.

Appealing to both

Together with the Secretary-General, she urged Iran and the US to “quickly mobilize” in “spirit and commitment” to resume cooperation under the JCPOA.

They welcomed the reinstatement by the US in February of waivers on nuclear non-proliferation projects and appealed to the country to lift its sanctions, as outlined in the Plan, and extend oil trade waivers.

Together they also called on on Iran to reverse the steps it has taken that are inconsistent with its nuclear-related commitments under the Plan.

Monitoring enrichment

While the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been unable to verify the stockpile of enriched uranium in Iran, it estimates that there is currently more than 15 times the allowable amount under the JCPOA, including uranium enriched to 20 and 60 per cent, which Ms. DiCarlo called “extremely worrying”.

Moreover, on 8 and 20 June, IAEA reported that Iran had started to install additional advanced centrifuges at the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz and began feeding uranium into advanced centrifuges at the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Fordow.

In his latest report, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, informed the Council that the UN agency’s ability to verify and confirm the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear activities are key to the JCPOA’s full and effective implementation.

Iran’s decision to remove site cameras and place them and the data they collected under Agency seals, “could have detrimental implications”.

Improved relationships ‘key’

Bilateral and regional initiatives to improve relationships with Iran remain “key” and should be encouraged and built upon, according to Ms. DiCarlo.

Additionally, Member States and the private sector are urged to use available trade instruments to engage with Iran and Tehran is requested to address their concerns in relation to resolution 2231 (2015) on its nuclear issues.

The senior UN official also drew attention to annex B of the resolution, updating ambassadors in the Council on nuclear-related provisions, ballistic missiles and asset freezing.

We hope that diplomacy will prevail – UN political chief

Triumph for multilateralism

The JCPOA was a triumph for non-proliferation and multilateralism,” said the UN political affairs head.

However, after many years of uncertainty, she warned that the Plan is now at “a critical juncture” and encouraged Iran and the US to build on recent momentum to resolve remaining issues.

“The Secretary-General is convinced there is only one path to lasting peace and security for all Member States, and that is the one based on dialogue and cooperation,” she said.  “We hope that diplomacy will prevail”. 

In Iran’s best interest

Olof Skoog, Head of the European Union Delegation to the UN, speaking in his capacity as the Coordinator of the Joint Commission established by the JCPOA, to the Security Council, recognized the negative economic consequences that the US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA has had on Iran but affirmed that restoring the agreement is “the only way” for the country to reap its full benefits.

He reminded that the Plan would comprehensively lift sanctions, encourage greater international cooperation, and allow Iran to reach its “full economic potential”.  

“It is, therefore, important to show the necessary political will and pragmatism to restore the JCPOA,” said Ambassador Skoog who, while acknowledging the sense of urgency, counselled against “escalatory steps” and to preserve sufficient space for the diplomatic efforts to succeed.

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Dynamic diplomacy: From SCO to BRICS

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Image source: Tehran Times

The tree of Iran’s balanced foreign policy approach is on the verge of being a one-year-old child. Stronger than before, Iran is pursuing dynamic diplomacy in a variety of cities such as Doha, Ashgabat, and other capitals. Baghdad will also join the list soon.

While Iran’s top negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani is engaged in intensive negotiations in Qatar with the United States through the European Union delegation, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and his oil and foreign ministers are in Ashgabat pursuing transit diplomacy as well as the legal regime of the Caspian Sea with the littoral states. 

Prior to his departure for Ashgabat on Wednesday, Raisi spoke to reporters about the purpose of his visit to Turkmenistan. 

“This visit is taking place at the invitation of the esteemed president of the brotherly and friendly country of Turkmenistan in order to attend the Caspian Sea littoral states summit,” he remarked.

The President called the Caspian Sea a common heritage and capital for the littoral states with more than 270 million people. 

“We have good relations with the littoral states of the Caspian Sea, but in addition to reviewing the legal regime of the Caspian Sea and peaceful use of the sea for the purpose of improving security at the sea, what will be discussed at the sixth summit of the Caspian Sea littoral states is cooperation between countries in the fields of transport, transit, trade, management of marine living resources, environment, as well as preventing the presence of outsiders in the sea, which is also agreed upon by all coastal countries.”

Prior to the beginning of the summit, Raisi met Serdar Berdimuhamedow, Turkmenistan’s President, as well as Chairman of the People’s Council of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow.

During the meeting with the President of Turkmenistan, Raisi pointed out that the implementation of the memoranda of understanding and cooperation documents signed by the two countries during Berdimuhamedow’s recent visit to Tehran will accelerate promotion of cooperation between the two countries.

Later, Raisi met with the Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev. 

During the meeting, Raisi reminded Aliyev that the presence of the Israeli regime in any part of the world undermines security there.

The president also had a brief meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the summit. 

There’s little doubt that Tehran has not put all its eggs into the basket of the JCPOA revival, as it actively seeks to establish trade relations with the neighbors. It’s short-sighted thinking to assume that Iran has to wait for the United States to return to the JCPOA, while it can enjoy the benefits of regional alliances such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), or BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). 

On Monday, Iran’s former Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh, who was holding his last presser, told the Tehran Times correspondent that Tehran has submitted a membership request to the BRICS secretariat via Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian. While dynamically trailing balanced and active diplomacy with the neighbors, Tehran is awaiting Washington’s serious political decisions to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Source: Tehran Times

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