August 18, 2015

Iran: Yea or Nay?

When reps return from Labor Day break, Congress has nine days to scuttle President Obama’s no-nukes bet on Iran. The president has momentum and 29 physicists on his side, but he lost Chuck Schumer, the leader ...

When reps return from Labor Day break, Congress has nine days to scuttle President Obama’s no-nukes bet on Iran. The president has momentum and 29 physicists on his side, but he lost Chuck Schumer, the leader of his own party in the Senate.

It’s folks who say John Kerry et al denied Iran the bomb versus those who think our diplomats just handed it over. Gravely, the president said the only alternative is war. But Iran’s human rights crimes and proxy terrorism have many wishing for an alternative to the alternative. Despite all the teeth-pulling and high-dollar lobbying, this is one D.C. debate that’s not all bad faith. For a change, maybe the going has been hard because this question is so hard.

So, we looked beyond the lobbying, boosterism and #IranDeal tweet war to ask the weighty one-word question with no easy answer: yea or nay?

Our guest Gary Samore was the arms control architect who made news when he quit a big lobby group that was against the deal — before he was for it. He’s no idealist:

…We were not going to convince the Iranian government that nuclear weapons were a bad thing. For reasons of their own, they see them as important — or at least the option to produce nuclear weapons — to defend themselves against the great Satan and to assert Iran’s primacy in the region. So our policy has mainly been based on trying to prolong their effort, to postpone their ability to produce nuclear weapons. And we’ve used a variety of tools, from sabotage, to sanctions, to export controls, military threats, and diplomacy. And I see this agreement as another element in a game of delay. Except, fifteen years is a pretty good delay — much better than we could achieve through most other instruments.

The administration, said Samore, reckons it’s buying more than time. When the deal expires, maybe a liberalizing, modernizing, Westernizing Iran will elect leaders who don’t want the bomb. Our friend Stephen Van Evera of MIT told us, chillingly, that the Middle East will be the last nuclear-free region on Earth. He said we should do this deal — it constrains Iran and lets us focus on the real nightmares:

The scariest scenario that we should focus on is that Iran will get weapons, and that will set off a domino effect in which other powers that, I think, are even less reliable as custodians of these weapons will get them. The Saudis have said very clearly, “if Iran moves towards nukes, we will do it, too.” I’m much more worried about the Saudis as a nuclear power than I am about the Iranians, because the Saudi state is shot through with radicals who have close ties to Sunni jihadists who have made clear they intend to take WMD against the West if they can acquire it — which Iran has not done.

How is it possible, though, that we made a good deal with bad people? Nader Hashemi reminded us that “Iran is the biggest backer of the Assad regime today” and the Islamic Republic will keep wreaking havoc in the region. But he’s a surprising “yea” vote on the deal, which could backfoot the hardliners and boost millions of Iranians who like human rights and hate Assad.

Jane Eisner, editor of the progressive Jewish daily The Forward, rounded out our roll call, voting a well-informed “present”. Eisner’s reporter Larry Cohler-Esses — the first Jewish journo welcomed in Iran since 1979 — came back with hopeful news about middle Iran. But the mullahs remain the mullahs, and Eisner can’t be sure what will happen during this fifteen year experiment:

It was a mixed bag. You like to believe that this is a country that is interested in moving ahead, in dealing with the problems of its citizens and opening up to the world. It’s very educated, very urbane in many ways. And you think, “OK, this could work.” And then there are other interviews which left me chilled left me really, really concerned about who is going to be in charge and what are they going to be doing in the future with weaponry and nuclear capability. That distinction, between the people and what Larry [Cohler-Esses] calls the “deep state” is really difficult.

Moments like the Greek bailout and Ireland’s marriage question have us wondering what would happen if we all got to vote on the new path with Iran. Tell us, then: yea or nay? And, either way, are you voting with a hopeful or heavy heart?

July 24, 2015

Behind the Persian Curtain

After two years, three “final” deadlines and a cabinet-level bike wreck, we have a deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran. In Tehran, Boston, and the Security Council chamber it felt like a time to ...

After two years, three “final” deadlines and a cabinet-level bike wreck, we have a deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran. In Tehran, Boston, and the Security Council chamber it felt like a time to celebrate. This week, we asked just what does a deal mean?

Our friend, the journalist/historian Stephen Kinzer, has dreamt of a “reset” that would change the strategic chess and bring Iran and the United States back together. He said that both sides are fighting a long and traumatic history, but new restraint (informed by that history) seems possible:

This Iran operation in 1953, in which the CIA destroyed forever — at least up until now — Iranian democracy seemed like a success at time. We got rid of a guy we didn’t like, Mohammad Mossadegh, and we replaced him with a guy, the Shah, who would do everything we wanted. So, it seemed like the perfect solution at the time. Now when we look back, and we see that the Shah’s increasing repression caused huge problems inside Iran. It led to the explosion which produced the mullahs’ government and produced another 35 years of repression. We’re slowly coming to realize that these interventions hurt us in the long run… [Obama’s] biggest failures in foreign policy have been times when he’s been seduced into intervening, whether it’s South Sudan or Libya. And his greatest successes have been places where he’s restrained himself… What I’m worried about is what happens after Obama. Is the pendulum going to swing back?

Kelly Golnoush Niknejad is the Iranian-American editor-in-chief of the Tehran Bureau, an independent organization delivering honest, anonymous news and comment from inside Iran via (of necessity) Niknejad’s Newton home. She said that domestic change may come gradually as the regime co-opts and catches up with two different post-revolutionary generations:

A lot of young people do not remember the revolution. Those who came of age with the Internet and satellite television and the reformist administration of Khatami in the 1990s — where there was a brief period of about two years where there was a lot openings in terms of cultural freedoms and newspapers printing — a lot of people became very political and idealistic during that period. And we also have another generation coming about that wasn’t really part of that. They came about during Ahmadinejad. They have very different political awareness, and I think most of their ideas of freedom are probably what they see on satellite television.

“Slow” was the keyword of our Iran talks. The anthropologist Narges Bajoghlid, who wrote recently about hiphop as Rouhani’s latest propaganda tool, said that those young Iranians want reform, not revolt. Kinzer agreed: having weathered their own revolution and witnessed the excesses of the late Arab Spring, Iranians prefer the devil they know.

And Chas Freeman, our favorite US Foreign Service wiseman, cracked that the negotiations stopped an Iranian nukes program that didn’t exist, solving a problem we didn’t have. But the exercise was worth it anyway if it underlines the folly of military interventions. We should have been learning, too, that sanctions stiffen resistance and strengthen target governments — in Cuba as in Iran. And we should be learning patience and restraint long-term and short.

For one thing, the opening to China, strategically important and useful as it was, did not produce Sino-American cooperation on any level for about six to seven years. It took time to begin to make it possible for us to cooperate. So, I wouldn’t hold my breath for a major improvement in US-Iranian relations. We have to be patient, and we have to be creative. But the lesson…is that statesmanship, skillfully conducted, can really make a difference.

So tell us: Are you ready to walk through the Persian curtain?

The Sound of the US-Iran Relationship

How did America and Iran get to yes? A relationship defined by a CIA-backed coup, a revolution, and a hostage crisis seemed permanently poisoned — even before President George W. Bush placed Iran in his “Axis of Evil.” There was more than a little venom and proxy violence over half a century. The sound of this relationship is more than tough talk though. These bites (most from a brilliant 2009 BBC documentary) reveal a sad game of geopolitical phone tag between two rivals who should probably be friends. Whenever one calls, the other isn’t ready to talk. And vice-versa, for forty years — until now.

Head to our SoundCloud page for more info on each track.
—Pat Tomaino.

Podcast • December 16, 2010

Wikileaks: A Simulation of Net Wars to Come

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with James Der Derian and Ronald Deibert (37 minutes, 18 mb mp3) With Net thinkers James Der Derian at Brown and Ron Deibert at the Univesity of Toronto, we’re ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with James Der Derian and Ronald Deibert (37 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

With Net thinkers James Der Derian at Brown and Ron Deibert at the Univesity of Toronto, we’re looking for a new lede on the Wikileaks story. Julian Assange, poor devil, is the least of it — even if Bill O’Reilly wants to rip him apart with his bare hands and Vladimir Putin would give him the Nobel Peace Prize. What’s interesting, in this conversation anyway, is the glimpse of an arms race in cyberspace, and the cautionary lesson in the geopolitics of the Internet.

James Der Derian would tell you the next big war could be of the cyber variety. More dangerous than Anonymous vs. Mastercard, it could be Our Worms vs. Yours. The parties could be governments or non-state networks. The targets could be military or civilian — Third World hackers against, say, control-tower computers at Heathrow or O’Hare. And in a paranoid frenzy before attackers are identifiable, it could get out of hand very fast — like World War I, but faster.

Historically speaking, trans-national news services usually corresponded to empires. The spread of imperial power was accompanied by these various news services — Agence France-Presse, even TASS — sort of covered wherever the domain of that state power reached. What’s interesting is this: does WikiLeaks represent any power within the spread of particular networks? Is there an interest here that we need to look at, that’s being furthered to the detriment of the popular will that we tend to see identified with the internet?

… because of the densely interconnected nature of the internet and of control systems, cascading effects can run out of control very fast. You could have the equivalent of a World War I scenario. There a small little incident in Bosnia, the assassination of the archduke, led to a conflagration that killed millions of individuals. What caused that to happen was secret treaties, and that’s why the most recent leaks have created such an uproar. Diplomacy was very much a secret game. Every treaty had a secret article connected to it that said: if you are attacked by country X we will come to your support. It created the effect of a densely networked system [in which] you push one button and the next thing you know Germany had to go to war for Austria… Cascading effects went out of control very swiftly.

Ron Deibert would remind you that the next cyber war won’t exactly be the first one. The conflict in 2008 between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia involved not only tanks and naval skirmishing, but also a major denial-of-service attack on the Georgian government and banking system.

There is really a geopolitics of cyber space, a competition over this domain, from the idea level all the way down to the system infrastructure. … Most of what we call cyberspace is actually owned and operated by the private sector.

Keep in mind the context behind all this is that we’re moving in a remarkable rate towards a new mode of communicating, just within the last five years. … We’re migrating to this new way of communicating without developing the usual norms and protocols around basic security practices.

There is a kind of a demographic shift happening in cyberspace. It started out very much as an American dream. A West Coast libertarian ethos informed cyberspace in the beginning, because, frankly, that’s where it was invented. But over the last couple of decades it’s migrated outward. Now we’re seeing the highest rates of growth occurring in zones of conflict, in the developing world: there is a migration from the North and the West to the South and the East in cyberspace, and I think that is going to change the character of cyberspace. Most of the groups that we study, cyber-criminals and underground economies, [are] in places like Lagos or St. Petersburg or Shanghai. For individuals in these places, connecting to cyberspaces is a way for them to get out of the structural economic inequalities that they face on a day-to-day basis.

What we’re all wondering is whether the fear Wikileaks has surfaced could mark the beginning of the end of the open Internet. Will American anxiety about Web freedoms come to resemble the Chinese government’s? As the Guardian notes unmercifully, the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama paeans of a year ago — to information networks that “are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable” — read now like “a satirical masterpiece.” We seem, at least, to be looking at first blood between established power in the U.S. and the adolescent romance with a magical, free, transformative Web.

Podcast • June 10, 2010

Steve Kinzer’s ‘Reset’ Roles for Turkey and Iran

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Stephen Kinzer. (44 minutes, 21 mb mp3) Stephen Kinzer is a journalist of a certain cheeky fearlessnes and exquisite timing. In his new book he’s ahead of the ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Stephen Kinzer. (44 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

Stephen Kinzer is a journalist of a certain cheeky fearlessnes and exquisite timing. In his new book he’s ahead of the game again.

The ink was barely dry on Kinzer’s Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future, when events conspired late in May to demonstrate his logic in action. It was the sort of crack in the hegemonic eggshell that had to show up sooner or later, when leaders of rising powers — from that restless tier of less-than-permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, or what Parag Khanna calls The Second World — would announce themselves on the main stage with an idea that Uncle Sam and NATO hadn’t thought of first. And suddenly, out of a hat, there they were together in Tehran: President Lula of Brazil and Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey and President Ahmedinejad, their host, with an agreement to off-load Iranian uranium and avert a nuclear-proliferation crisis with Iran and a sanctions campaign at the United Nations. The seriousness of the diplomatic initiative seemed to be certified by Hillary Clinton’s hauteur in dismissing it — then further by Tom Friedman’s ugly trashing of it. But PM Erdogan held his ground: “This is the moment to discuss if we believe in the supremacy of law or in the law of the supremes and superiors,” he said. And the example stands. Mariano Aguirre writes on the indispensable openDemocracy site: “it is a watershed in the configuration of a new multipolar world.”

Steve Kinzer’s Reset is a bold exercise in reimagining the United States’ big links in the Middle East. His essential question is: what if Turkey and Iran, of all nations, are to be our critical partners in stabilizing the region — not Saudi Arabia and Israel? Not the least of my questions is: how dare an ex-New York Times reporter try to shape history, after writing so much of it? I asked him whether Washington’s objection to the Brazil-Turkey-Iran triangle was perhaps less to their nuclear-fuel deal than to their presumption in advancing it:

I think there’s still a residue of anger at Turkey for its refusal to let American troops through to invade Iraq in 2003. That might be the beginning of this whole process. There are still some people in Washington who are angry at Turkey for not doing that, and in fact at one point Turkey was even being blamed by senior Bush Administration officials for helping to cause the crisis in Iraq because they didn’t allow us to launch that kind of invasion.


I also think there’s a mindset that tells people in Washington: when we decide something, the NATO allies and everybody else that considers themselves our friends have to go along. The idea that another group of countries in the world is going to suggest, “We live here, we know this neighborhood, and we have a different idea,” is something the US is still very uncomfortable with. The mindset says we need to hold onto the kind of power that we’re used to having, and this to me is one of the biggest problems that my book and others are trying to address…


There is such an inertia in the foreign policy-making process that any original thinking is crushed immediately as the germ of some terrible plague… So although I like to think I’ve come up with an interesting approach to the Middle East… what I really would like to get across as a bigger message is: let’s think big. Let’s come up with some new ideas. The century changed. The Cold War is over. But our policies, particularly in the Middle East, have not changed… Keeping yourself stuck in the same rut is going to intensify these interlocking crises…

Stephen Kinzer in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, June 8, 2010.

Steve Kinzer — once the Times’ man in Central America, then Berlin, Istanbul and Tehran — reminds you what a newspaperman’s virtues are good for, all the better when freed from his newspaper chains.

Podcast • April 25, 2008

Deal-Maker on the Spot: Christopher Hill

Today’s visiting fireman at the Watson Institute is under more pressure than most. Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Christopher Hill (16 minutes, 7 mb mp3) Christopher Hill, between East and West Our man ...

Today’s visiting fireman at the Watson Institute is under more pressure than most.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Christopher Hill (16 minutes, 7 mb mp3)

christopher hill

Christopher Hill, between East and West

Our man in East Asia, Christopher R. Hill, negotiating North Korea’s nuclear disarmament, is evidently having a tougher time with the Bush principals in Washington than with the Pyongyang end of the wobbly old “axis of evil.” David Sanger in the New York Times yesterday wrote that Bush administration support has “wavered” for the Hill-crafted deal that would take North Korea off the state terrorism hit list in return for a final dismantling of its now abandoned nuclear program. In Washington, Sanger writes, it is Hill, the asssistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, who is feeling abandoned by President Bush and Secretary of State Rice — and beset by the opposition of Vice President Cheney and former UN Ambassador John Bolton, on the lookout for “appeasement.” It was Cheney, by implication, who has cleared for publication what sounds like awkward video evidence that North Korean technicians were working around the Syrian nuclear plant that Israel blew up last September.

There’s no abandonment, no appeasement in the conversation here. But there’s a short course on diplomatic chess in three dimensions — between Middle and Far East, between Rice and Cheney for the president’s ear, between the rise of China as the “second agent of development” in Asia and the forseeable end of a century of American hegemony in the Pacific Rim.