What an amazing few weeks we have seen. Not to say everything in my favorite part of the world is suddenly doing fine – Syria and Palestine, Gaza in particular, still face disastrous realities of war and occupation – but suddenly the stand-down on the threat of U.S. missiles in Syria has been joined by a deal on Iran that means moves towards war against Iran are off the table at least for six months, the Geneva II talks on Syria may actually start in the next few weeks, and the war in Afghanistan may actually be coming to an end. Could we be seeing the rising role of diplomacy instead of military force as the basis of U.S. foreign policy?

The Iran Deal

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif and EU Foreign Affairs chief Catherine Ashton.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif and EU Foreign Affairs chief Catherine Ashton.

Along with the promise of no additional nuclear-related sanctions, Iran will be allowed to access about $4 billion (out of more than $100 billion being held in western banks) over the next six months. It will be allowed to import spare parts and inspection materials for its civilian aircraft fleet, which has faced serious safety compromises because of the inability to import parts from the U.S. And it will be allowed to access about $400 million in tuition funds for Iranian students at international universities.It’s probably still too soon to give an unequivocal ‘yes’ to that question. But the agreement raises a lot of new –and generally good – possibilities. I wrote about the Iran deal in The Nation. There are plenty of problems ahead. The deal is limited, only good for six months, and much of the U.S.-led sanctions regime that has crippled so much of Iran’s economy, shredding the middle class, remains in place.

The deal could still fall apart. But both sides are now invested in maintaining it, at least for the six month term, so if the U.S. Congress, Israel, and the Saudis (just to name a few) don’t scuttle it, this could be the beginning of something very important. So no war with Iran this week, which could have been a likely result if the negotiations collapsed– thanksgiving indeed!

So what does the deal call for? Negotiated largely by Iranian foreign minister Mohamed Javad Zarif and top European Union envoy Catherine Ashton, though overseen by the U.S., the deal provides Iran with the promise of no new sanctions and a tiny amount of relief from current sanctions, while freezing and rolling back key components of its nuclear power and research program.

The U.S. and its allies (the other four Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, Britain, China, France, and Russia, plus Germany, thus the “Perm 5 + 1”) get far more of their demands met. Iran agreed to completely halt all uranium enrichment over 5%, and to freeze its entire existing arsenal of all uranium enriched above 3.5%. It will dilute or turn into fuel bars its entire arsenal of medium-enriched (20%) uranium. Iran is prohibited from installing any new centrifuges in its enrichment facilities, and can produce only enough centrifuges to replace any that are damaged. It agreed it will not commission, fuel, or produce fuel for the Arak heavy water reactor. And of course Iran’s oil sales will continue at 60% below capacity because of the existing sanctions.

Crucially, Iran agreed to far more intrusive inspections by the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency. Tehran will provide the IAEA with daily access to its enrichment facilities at Fordow and Natanz, to its centrifuge assembly facilities, uranium mines and more. They will also provide the key information required under the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As a signatory to the NPT, Iran already allows significant inspections of its nuclear facilities. Tehran signed the Additional Protocol in 2003, allowing even greater inspections, but withdrew from the Protocol (although remaining a signatory to the NPT overall) in 2005 as George Bush’s “axis of evil” rhetoric and threats escalated.

Nothing about the current agreement can be taken for granted. Republican and Democratic warmongers alike are threatening to undermine it by imposing new sanctions. Saudi Arabia (while appearing now to have accepted reality) and other Gulf states mobilized powerful opposition, fearing anything that might result in recognition of Iran as a legitimate regional power. And Israel – at least at the political leadership level – continues to threaten unilateral military action against Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called the agreement “a historic mistake.”

We need to keep the diplomacy-not-war pressure on. It’s highly unlikely (though one should never say impossible!) that Israel will actually move towards a military strike. General Benny Gantz, head of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), continues to assert that Israel could successfully attack Iran’s nuclear sites on its own, even if no other country (read: the United States) supported it.

But there’s not too much chance of that happening. Some Israeli officials recognize that an Israeli strike would be dangerous because it would further isolate Tel Aviv from the international community which is overwhelmingly in support of the deal with Iran. But that doesn’t mean the Israeli military stays in its barracks. With the Iran agreement a done deal, there’s an even greater threat now of a new Israeli attack on Gaza. Netanyahu might do it for domestic political reasons, and certainly engaging in military action, even when Israel starts it unprovoked, is a reliable way to shore up congressional backing in the U.S.

Beginning November 24 Israel launched a three-day military “exercise” using the coastal city of Ashkelon as a stand-in for Gaza. Netanyahu doesn’t HAVE to make a serious case of linkage (he really doesn’t even have to claim a serious provocation…) to gain U.S. support – if it happens, the move will be aimed as much at Congress and the White House as it is the Israeli public and Gaza’s 1.8 million civilians imprisoned in the impoverished, crowded Strip. For Congress, it would give many in Congress (although not nearly as many as before) another chance to jump up and remind the world that Israel is our best friend, and that we need to defend/ listen to/agree with Israel on all things. For the White House, it’s a message that you ignore/disagree with us at your peril – because now YOU, President Obama, will have to figure out how to respond to our move as well.

As usual, it’s up to us to keep the pressure on. We need to make sure the agreement with Iran holds, and we need to make sure the U.S. doesn’t continue to exclude Iran from participating in Syria peace talks. (That effort is a really stupid move – if you’re serious about diplomacy, everyone who’s a major player needs to be at the table. And Iran, key backer of the Syrian regime, is certainly a major player in the Syrian war.)


The situation in Gaza continues to deteriorate – even beyond the threat of direct military assault. The Israeli siege – in place since 2007 – continues, with almost all goods locked out, and almost all Gazans locked in. And it’s worse than ever now, because the network of tunnels on the Gaza-Egypt border, which once provided the basics of consumer goods, fuel, medical and educational supplies, even cars and livestock, are now shut down by the Egyptian military government. Egypt under the current military government has actually destroyed most of the tunnels.

Gaza schoolgirls wade through sewage

Gaza schoolgirls wade through sewage

On the “diplomatic” front, the U.S.-sponsored “peace talks” continue staggering along. As many of us have said for far too long, 22 years of failed diplomacy about to turn into 23 is hardly something to write home about. I wrote about the need for Palestinian rights, rather than “arrangements” – some things don’t change.One effect of the siege is a huge shortage of fuel for electricity – which Israel, under international law, is obligated to provide. But as is so often the case, when there is no consequence for its violations, the violations continue. My colleague and friend, Richard Falk, the current UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territory, recently issued a new urgent warning on the effect of the electricity shortage. Among other things, the lack of fuel means the main sewage treatment plant isn’t working – so streets of Gaza city are now flooded with raw sewage. Children – already undernourished and weakened by the siege’s cut-off of adequate food and medicine – are wading through sewage on their way to school. Epidemics are almost certain.

Phyllis Bennis with Richard Falk, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the occupied territory, speaking at the Church Center for the United Nations when Richard presented his most recent report to the General Assembly.

Phyllis Bennis with Richard Falk, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the occupied territory, speaking at the Church Center for the United Nations when Richard presented his most recent report to the General Assembly.

For now, the immediate danger is that the success of the Iran negotiations could result in a new military attack on Gaza. If it happens, there is a great danger that the U.S. would simply allow it to go forward, regardless of Israel’s violations of both international and U.S. domestic law, as a “gift” to assuage Netanyahu’s frustration with being the loser.One thing that might change, on the Palestine-Israel front – I’m now in the running to become Richard Falk’s successor as the next UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territory. The decision gets made in Geneva, in the Human Rights Council. There are several good people applying, I have no idea what my chances are. But my goal is to continue the extraordinary work Richard has done (and on which I’ve been privileged to collaborate with him) to engage civil society as a key component of UN engagement and international law. Keep tuned.

Afghanistan – End of the U.S. War?

The U.S.-Afghanistan negotiations over keeping U.S. troops in the country after the “end of combat” in 2014 have hit a new snag. The U.S.-backed president of the country, Hamid Karzai is widely viewed as both corrupt and incompetent (he’s not known as the “mayor of Kabul” for nothing, since his brief doesn’t extend much beyond the borders of the city). He depends on U.S. money, U.S. support, and U.S. troops to stay in power. But in recent years he’s also created a persona of independent, even anti-U.S. posturing, to gain broader public support at home.

With elections scheduled for next spring, Karzai is eager to remain a player so he can help elect his chosen candidate. That may be the most significant reason for his recent rejection of an almost-completed deal with Washington, which would allow around 15,000 U.S. troops to remain in the country after the official end of combat in 2014. Karzai has now staked out a position refusing to grant the U.S. forces immunity from prosecution in Afghan courts for any crimes they might commit. And the U.S. is adamant that without immunity, the troops go home.

This isn’t a new idea – it’s the same issue that scuttled the potential for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq after the official withdrawal of combat troops. And it led to the complete pull-out of all U.S. troops and all Pentagon-paid contractors in 2011 (although a contingent of State Dept-paid contractors does remain in Iraq even today). In Afghanistan, we might actually see the withdrawal of all U.S. troops after more than twelve years of war and occupation. That wouldn’t be a bad thing – it’s the first step towards allowing Afghans to reclaim their country. As even the NY Times editorial board has now admitted, President Obama has not “explained how a residual force can improve the competency of Afghan forces when a much broader and intensive American engagement over the last decade has not.”

Hopefully it will not look like post-withdrawal Iraq, where sectarian and other violence is raging, with more than 6,000 civilians killed this year alone – more than were killed this year in Afghanistan itself. There is no guarantee – but the withdrawal of U.S. troops remains the first and necessary step – only the first – in the long and painful process of allowing people to begin the slow effort of rebuilding their war-shattered lives and their wounded societies.

Abdul Ghafar, left, and Rahmat Gul, who both lost relatives in a U.S. drone attack in their Afghan village Sept. 7, watch as a U.S. drone flies over the city of Jalalabad.

Abdul Ghafar, left, and Rahmat Gul, who both lost relatives in a U.S. drone attack in their Afghan village Sept. 7, watch as a U.S. drone flies over the city of Jalalabad.

U.S. reliance on drone attacks in Afghanistan remains central to the U.S. agenda there – which has far more to do with maintaining military bases and the ability to strike at will against anyone the U.S. believes to be a threat to U.S. interests, than it does with protecting Afghans from insurgents or others. It’s a counter-terrorism agenda based on U.S. concerns, not an effort to win the hearts and minds of Afghans by protecting them. And drone strikes – like those carried out by the CIA in Pakistan, the drone wars in Yemen and Somalia and beyond – are a crucial part of conducting wars with no U.S. casualties, with major U.S. deniability, and with no U.S. accountability. I talked about the U.S. drone wars here. Just a few days ago new U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan killed civilians, including a child, and severely wounded two women.It is certainly true that many Afghans, mainly those in Kabul and other large cities, would prefer that U.S. troops remain, supposedly for training and to support the large but insufficently trained and armed Afghan military. In the countryside, where the majority of Afghans still live, in small villages and tiny hamlets scattered across isolated and rugged terrain, opposition to the U.S. troops is fierce and growing, primarily because of drone attacks that kill civilians and especially because of night raids on Afghan homes, violating the national and cultural norms of the country. Karzai and U.S. negotiators managed to finesse an agreement on night raids (with weasel language about U.S. troops only being involved in “exceptional circumstances”). And the loya jirga, or high council of tribal leaders convened to approve the long-term U.S. troop deal accepted it. But then Karzai pulled his support.

There is certainly a danger that drone strikes would continue even if all U.S. forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan. The work of organizations like Global Drones Watch, initiated by Code Pink in the U.S., and other anti-drone campaigns remain crucial – not because wars depend on any one weapon, but because focusing on one weapon and the devastation it can impose on children and women and families can be a key component of humanizing the cost of war.

As always, we’ve got a lot of work to do.

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