Hillary’s opinion

hillaryHillary Clinton delivered a “muscular” foreign policy speech on March 19, which, in part, dealt with Iran’s nuclear program.  Clinton stated that, while the United States should “give space for diplomacy to work,” she remains, based on previous experience, “personally skeptical that the Iranians would follow through and deliver [on their promises]”. Similar to her president and his president’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton also made it abundantly clear that “every option” should remain on the table.

Clinton’s speech, of course, is disappointing to anyone who may have wished her to offer new solutions to international problems based on her four-year experience as a Secretary of State and a presidential hopeful who is writing a book on challenges of the 21st Century.  As former Secretary of State, she must have known that when she declares “every option” must remain on the table she is proposing to conduct diplomacy under the threat of war.  Issuing threats of violence is a blatant violation of international law enshrined in Article II, section 4 of the UN Charter.   Similarly, when Clinton expresses personal skepticism based on Iran’s passed behavior, she knows that it takes two to tango and thus the behavior of the U.S. could be partially responsible for the behavior of Iran.

The question that Hillary Clinton does not address (similar to the rest of the American establishment) is if Iran is building toward nuclear weapons technology what could be their reasons for doing so.

The mainstream media and the mainstream policy makers have done a good job of telling us about the strategic concerns of the other major parties involved in the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.  Israel needs a credible deterrence, partially based on a triad of nuclear weapons (land base, in the air, and on submarines) to deter Arab countries and Iran from attacking it.  U.S., on the other hand, must have a large conventional presence in the region, backed by its massive arsenal of nuclear weapons, to ensure the flow of petroleum and check any threats to its regional friends.

How about Iran’s strategic concerns? Whom is Iran trying to deter?  True, the Islamic regime in Iran is a brutal and corrupt theocracy.  (As was its predecessor Pahlavi Dynasty). Yet, the line of reasoning that suggests Iran should not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons because it is led by irrational fanatics who will attack Israel and/or US forces in the Persian Gulf is dishonest.  Any Iranian attack on either U.S or Israel would be suicidal. Both the US and Israel have enough nuclear warheads to lunch a devastating counter strike against Iran. Nuclear weapons are weapons much better suited to deterrence than fighting and winning wars.

A more reasoned answer is that Iranian leaders, much like Israelis and Americans, have rationally considered their national interests, took stock of their resources, and explored their military options, and concluded, again rationally, that developing nuclear technology, which enables them to build nuclear warheads in a hurry, is the most cost-effective deterrence.

The reality is that Iran finds herself facing two powerful foes, U.S. and Israel who have made no secret of their unhappiness with its regime.  As late as 2003, Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called on the world to go for Iran “the day after Iraq is finished.” In May of that year, US turned down, out of hand, a plan offered by Iran designed to resolve on comprehensive basis all of the bilateral difference between the two countries. In addition, US military presence around Iran remains considerable.  US Navy’s fifth fleet has been stationed in Persian Gulf since 1984.  US ground forces number more than one hundred thousand in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Saudi Arabia and UAE have purchased tens of billions of dollars in modern weapons, including offensive weapons such as long-range missiles and fighter-bombers, from the US in recent years. Israel is a regional superpower. Its convention military is among the best equipped and best trained in the world and it is the sixth largest exporter of military hardware worldwide.  Israel, in addition, has large stockpiles of WMDs.

In comparison, Iran’s armed forces are poorly equipped and poorly trained.  In addition, under American pressure, Russia has reneged on selling Iran modern air defense systems that could act as a deterrent against Israeli or American air strikes.

In this context, development of technology to build nuclear weapons in a short span of time seems to be the only deterrent option open to the regime in Tehran.  Thus, Hillary Clinton’s hunch may be in fact a good one but not for her reasons.  Rather, Iran’s clerical rulers would give up developing nuclear technology for possible weapon development only within a context of regional disarmament.


Why so much instability in the Middle East?

Why so much instability in the Middle East?.

Why so much instability in the Middle East?



Even with a large US military presence, a considerable amount economic aid and weapons sales to “friendly” regimes, maintaining stability in the Middle East has proven to be a challenge.

A better understanding of the political geography of the Middle East can help us better answer why Middle East suffers from what seems to be chronic instability.

The Middle East is among the most strategically located regions in the world. Historically, it has been a continental junction, connecting Africa, Asia, and Europe. Since early 20th Century, the discovery of oil has made the region of primary importance to the rest of the world and in particular the U.S. and Europe. Maintaining political stability, to ensure an uninterrupted flow of oil, was first a priority of the British Empire and, after the end of the Second World War, the United States.

Unstable states equals unstable region

Regional instability is, in great part, the product of unstable states. These unstable states are partially the result of geography but are also, in no small part, manmade. The arid and mountainous geography of the region has favored the development of local tribal loyalties above national cohesion. In additional to these natural barriers, the artificial boundaries, drawn to serve the imperial interests of the British and the French, promoted even more profoundly unstable states by failing to reflect any of the local histories, peoples, languages, religions, or cultures.

Aridity sustains nomadism and the accompanying local tribal loyalties. The most arid regions, the deserts of the Middle East, are formidable barriers to national cohesion as well regional integration.

The largest of these deserts is the Sahara in North Africa. With an area the size of continental US it restricts East-West as well as North-South movement. Rub al Khali (The Empty Quarter) in Saudi Arabia is the second largest desert in the Middle East. It extends South East-North West, creating a wide gap between inside Saudi Arabia that separates the Shia population who live closer to Persian Gulf and the Sunni population who resides along the Red Sea. Rub al Khali also splits the region into two separate parts with Yemen, Oman on one side and Jordan, Israel, and Syria on the other.

Mountains are also major barriers to national and regional integration because, they too limit travel and trade while simultaneously facilitate defense of tribal or minority regions, core areas from which antigovernment challenges originate.

In the north east, the Caucuses and the Alborz constitute a thousand mile chain of mountains that straddles the Caspian Sea and is crowned with the 18000 feet high Mount Damavand in northern Iran. These two mountain ranges restrict travel in the North-South direction. The Zagros Mountains stretch for more than 500 miles in a north-south direction in western Iran with several peaks reaching above 13000 feet. It hinders West-East travel. In addition, mountain ranges crisscross the Kurdish plateau and Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey reaches to nearly 17000 feet high.

Regional instability is, in part, the product of artificial boundaries

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The geometric boundaries of most Middle East states, a thousand miles of which are straight lines, were drawn around the turn of the 20th Century, by European powers in order to serve their imperial interests rather than to reflect any of the local histories, peoples, languages, religions, or cultures. These European interests were oil, trade, trade, and containment of Soviet Union, interests that have been remarkably similar to those of the United States since the end of the Second World War.

The result has been creation of states that are internally divided while at the same time pulled away by kinships across their frontiers.


Iraq, for example, is divided along Arab and Kurdish as well as Shia and Sunni regions. The north is Sunni – Kurd, the Center Arab – Sunni, and the South Arab – Shia.

KurdistanFor the Kurds in northern Iraq, their kin who live across international borders in Syria, Turkey, and Iran pull them away from the rest of Iraq. Protected by mountains Kurds have denied these states complete control over their homeland.




shiasunni_map700 (2)In the south, the Shia Arabs find their kin across the border in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait while the Sunni – Arab region in the center extend westward deep into Syria.






Regional instability has direct effect on oil export due to narrow maritime chock points

The most important of these narrow passages is the Strait of Hormuz. It connects Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean via the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. Strait of Hormuz is only 21 miles wide but through it moves 20% of all traded oil worldwide.

On their way to Europe, oil tankers must travel through additional chock points; the Bab el-Mandeb Strait that links the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean and further north the Gulf of Suez and Suez Canal. Bab el Mandeb is only 20 miles wide. Similarly, the Gulf of Suez is only12 to 20 miles wide and the Suez Canal is a mere 673 feet wide.

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The Difference Makes All the Difference

Persians, Arabs, and Turks

In 2006, the National Geographic–Roper Public Affairs Geography Literacy Study of 510 18-24 year olds pointed a dismal picture of how little the public knows about the Middle East.  Three years after the U.S invasion of Iraq and five years after U.S invasion of Afghanistan, 88% of respondents could not find Afghanistan on a map, 63% could not find either Iraq or Saudi Arabia, 75% could not point out Iran or Israel, and 44% could not find any of the those four countries. Today, with these wars costing 1.5 trillion dollars or $11 million every hour (according to the National Priority Project), and notwithstanding the human cost of the war so far, having a more nuanced understanding of the Middle East is long overdue.

A good place to start would be to look at some of the peoples of the Middle East:  Persians, Arabs, and Turks.  These three large ethno-lingual groups have lived in the Middle East for more than a millennia.  While they are tied together by the cultural unity of Islam, differences in history and ethnicity sets them clearly and importantly apart.

For a thousand years before Islam appeared on the Arabian Peninsula in 6th century AD, the dominant group in Southwest Asia were the Persians, decedents of Indo-European people who had also settled in Europe and India. International trade routes in Gupta and Sasanid times.HWC 284They spoke various branches of the same Indo-European language over the centuries, which used the same scripts known as Pahlavi. At the time of the Arab-Islamic expansion, the Sasanian Empire of Iran (Persia) ruled over the northern and eastern parts of Southwest Asia.

The inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula spoke different dialects of Arabic and lived as either farmers in the oases, traders and craftsmen in small towns, or nomadic tribesmen who travelled with their livestock in search of pasture and moved goods across the desert. Islam appeared in early 7th century in southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Prophet Muhammad claimed universal authority and by the time of his death in 632, he had sent military expeditions into Byzantine frontiers and representatives to the Iranian Sasanian court, calling on them to acknowledge his message.  

Ummayad_EmpireMuhammad’s successors soon took full advantage of the changing balance of power in the north and east.  Byzantine and Sasanian Empires had been weakened as result of plagues and eighty years of intermittent wars against each other. The invading Arab armies were now organized, experienced, and driven by either religious conviction or prospects of land and wealth. They conquered lands to the north and east, defeating the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires before turning to Northern Africa and conquering land as far as Spain by the 8th century.

In the center of the Arab Empire and in northern Africa, Arabic slowly replaced local languages and cultures. Differences between Arabs and Persians, however, persisted. Linguistically, Persians continued to use Pahlavi. However, in the tenth century a new Persian language emerged with a grammar similar to Pahlavi that used Arabic script and enriched by vocabulary from Arabic. In terms of historical identity, Persians continued to be strongly conscious of their pre-Islamic past, a feature not found in Arab countries of the Middle East with possible exception of Egypt.

Turks began to migrate across northeastern regions of the Islamic realm from central Asia beginning in the eighth century. Their largest numbers arrived as the bulk of the Mongol armies.  In time, they settled in northwestern Iran and Anatolia (todays Turkey), converted to Islam, and established dynasties that ruled over India, Iran, and the Arab regions of the Middle East. Turkish dynastiesThe most prominent of these were the Ottoman rulers who centered in Anatolia and controlled at their peak of strength South Eastern Europe, and most of the Arab speaking lands in Southwest Asia and North Africa.  The other major Dynasties were the Safavid in Iran and Moghal in India. In all three Turkish was the language of the army and the Court. Only in Anatolia and the lands on the east and west of the Caspian Sea Turkish was the language of ordinary people. In the rest of the Ottoman provinces with the exception of its Kurdish regions who spoke a language associated closely with Persian (Farsi), Arabic with its various dialects was the language of the people.  In Iran, the Safavid rulers, anxious to distinguish themselves from the Ottomans, forced the conversion of the population from the dominant Sunni sect of Islam to Shia. Since early 1600s, Shiaism has been the state religion of Iran.

Today some 250 Million Arabs live in Southwest Asia and North Africa. Turks living in Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and the Caucuses, make up around 165 million people. MapME_Ethnicities1993[1]Persians are the smallest of the three, perhaps no more than 40 to 45 million who make up about 51% to 60% of Iran’s population depending on how you count them.Nestled between live other large ethno-lingual groups such as Kurds, Baluches, Israelites, and Berbers.

Iran Nuclear Agreement is Not a Game Changer

By Farhad Malekafzali

With the new six-month agreement to limit Iran’s enrichment in return for easing of economic sanctions, hopes of been raised for step-by-step diplomacy toward dismantling Iran’s nuclear program.

The decade old debate regarding Iran’s nuclear program has largely centered on denying Iran capacity to build nuclear weapons because Iran’s leaders are too fanatically to be trusted with nuclear weapons and thus if they are allowed to build nuclear weapons, they would use them not as deterrence but rather to attack Israel or the “West.” Therefore, economic sanctions are used to compel the regime to end its nuclear weapons program.

However, since 2007, with intelligence reports showing Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003, the focus of US policy has shifted to preventing Iran from developing even an  independent civilian nuclear technology, ostensibly to deny Iran the knowhow to develop nuclear weapons quickly in the event of a crisis, what is called breakout technology.

A fundamental question not raised by mainstream media and the established academics is if Iran wants the capability to develop nuclear weapons, what could be her reasons. One possible reason, and the most obvious, is that Israel, less than a thousand miles away, has hundreds of nuclear warheads and the means to deliver them to targets deep inside Iran. As with the United States and the Soviet Union after WWII, if one side has nuclear weapons, it would be difficult to expect the other side not to develop the same capabilities. To refrain from doing so would be to place national security at the mercy of another country, your foe. In fact, once parity is achieved, the relationship between nuclear powers is supposed to stabilize. There would be no temptation to use nuclear weapons, even to put pressure on the other side for political reasons (nuclear blackmail) out of fear of escalation.  Rationality, a shared human trait, dictates that neither side would risk nuclear annihilation. Any nuclear attack would bring massive retaliation that result in mutual destruction. In the case of Iran and Israel, Iran will not be able to destroy Israel’s retaliator capabilities.  Israel’s nuclear weapons are spread on land, in the air and on submarines. But even if Iran could destroy Israel’s capacity to retaliate, the relatively short distances and the prevailing easterly winds will guarantee that its nuclear blasts over Israel would shower its own people with deadly radioactive material in a rather short order.  Second, Iran does not have a modern conventional force while Israel has a large stockpile of latest American made weapons and well-trained personnel to use them.  Iranians, in contrast, have been denied access to modern conventional weapons for at least 25 years including defensive systems such as the Russian SAM-300 anti-aircraft missile system largely because of American pressure.  Lastly, there is a large American military presence around Iran.  U.S. Navy has been present in Persian Gulf since the 1980s.  Since 2002, U.S. ground forces have been stationed in Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. The United States has invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq in clear violation of international norms and based on manufactured evidence in only the last dozen years.  It has armed Saudi Arabia and UAE heavily for the past twenty years with some of America’s most sophisticated missiles and fighter-bombers.  Sitting in Tehran, it is difficult for the rulers of Iran not to fear an American invasion.  As far as they can see it, if Iraq had nuclear capability, U.S. would not have invaded it in 2003.   Nuclear weapons or more likely the capability to build them in a hurry could act as an independent deterrence against the United States and its regional allies.

Given Iran’s weak conventional forces, even nuclear disarmament is only a first step that should be followed by deep cuts in offensive conventional weapons in the whole of Middle East.  It is unlikely for Iran, as a rational actor, to abandon the only means of deterrence available to it if the United States and its allies retain their sizable conventional superiority, which renders Iran as vulnerable to American invasion as Iraq was in 2003.  Arms reductions by US allies to defensive levels and departure of US forces are the only rational foreign policy options that would insure the security of every state in the region while still fitting into the United States’ and Israeli security interests, even if the central issue of Israeli occupation-Palestinian statehood is left untouched.  Israel does not need a conventional force with powerful offensive capability. It has peace treaties with two of its neighbors, Egypt and Jordan.  It could sign a favorable peace treaty with Syria in 2006 and the weakened Assad will be at least just as ready to sign one today. The Arab League’s 2002 proposal offering Israel both recognition and full diplomatic relations in return for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders is still on the table. As for US’ Arab allies, even with cuts in their armed forces, will have enough to keep themselves in power.  For the US, departure of its ground forces from the region alone can do much to improve its negative image among the Arab and Muslim publics. There is no reason for maintaining a naval presence in the Persian Gulf either.  Countries in the region depend on oil revenues for the bulk of their annual national budgets and thus have no logical reason to disrupt the flow of oil. A major obstacle to all of this, of course, is the profitable arms market. US sells 70% of the world’s weapons and most of that in the Middle East. Israel is the seventh largest exporter of arms worldwide.