Archive for the ‘Iran-AfPak’ Category

9/11 + 20

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Ilhan Omar’s thoughts are mine, of course, and certainly those of all AWAV readers, regular or occasional. As I don’t have anything in particular to say on this 20th anniversary that hasn’t been said by many others, I will merely offer a few recommendations of pertinent films to watch and noteworthy articles to read, beginning with the first-rate, five-part Netflix docuseries, Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror, which was completed after the August 15th fall of Kabul, so covers that calamitous event. In her review of the series, the Washington Post’s TV critic, Inkoo Kang, deems it

The most honest and exhaustive retrospective [on 9/11]… If you have the time or energy for only one TV commemoration, make it this one. Directed by Brian Knappenberger, the five-part docuseries foregrounds an unfortunate facet of 9/11 remembrance: For the country at large, that date can’t be extricated from the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the justifications of torture by the George W. Bush administration, and the subsequent increase in surveillance and Islamophobia within the United States.

Without partisan or ideological bias, “Turning Point” provides an opportunity to look back at the blunders in the “war on terror” (especially the lead-up to the Iraq War), the atrocities at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, and the delusions of the Rumsfeld and Bush doctrines to make strange and outrageous once again what we’ve come to accept as normal — all while paying respect to the dead and the first responders who sacrificed their lives and their health. That de-normalizing lens, fortified by perspectives from Afghans, provides an invaluable service, recalling many of the Bush White House’s human rights scandals while reminding us that none of them were preordained. Though occasionally dry, the docuseries’ sober tone also makes for a welcome refuge from the sea of maudlin or faux-suspenseful 9/11 content elsewhere.

A good half of the series focuses on Afghanistan and the fiasco of America’s twenty-year intervention (Iraq is covered too, of course). On the incredible tragedy in Afghanistan, do read, if you haven’t already, the extraordinary report by Anand Gopal in The New Yorker (Sep. 13th issue), “The other Afghan women: In the countryside, the endless killing of civilians turned women against the occupiers who claimed to be helping them,” which has been praised by all and sundry, including MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, who thus tweeted, “I think this is one of the best pieces of journalism I have ever read.” I agree. One quote:

What’s clear is that the U.S. did not attempt to settle such divides [in Afghan society] and build durable, inclusive institutions; instead, it intervened in a civil war, supporting one side against the other. As a result, like the Soviets, the Americans effectively created two Afghanistans: one [in the countryside] mired in endless conflict, the other [in the cities] prosperous and hopeful.

Gopal’s bottom line: of all the forces that have inflicted misery on Afghanistan’s rural population, men and women alike, over the past four decades—the Soviets, the Americans and their allies, the Afghan army, the Mujahideen and their warlords, and the Taliban—the least bad were the Taliban. It was otherwise for the urban population, which naturally wanted the Americans to stay—if I were a middle-class Kabuli, I would be pro-American too, believe me—but for villagers, the Americans—with their drones and B52s (which killed upwards of 50,000 civilians), predatory warlord allies, the soldiers themselves—were a disaster. The lives of rural Afghans, and particularly men, were permanently at risk from an American drone or bomb. For those who wished for a prolonged US military engagement, there is no dancing around this reality.

And as we learn in this Sep. 10th New York Times report on the last Afghans killed by an American drone, it wasn’t just rural civilians who were at risk.

Also worth the watch is the 45-minute Sep. 6th report on the Australian ABC network, “The fall of Kabul: The last days of the war in Afghanistan.” President Biden is spared no quarter for the manner in which the withdrawal was executed but it is clear that the real culprit is Trump and the February 2020 Doha agreement he concluded with the Taliban. As Afghanistan IR specialist William Maley asserted, the Doha deal was the “worst single exercise in diplomacy since the Munich agreement of 1938…a catastrophic error of diplomacy” that “gave the Taliban everything they really wanted.” This was the agreement Biden inherited and it is hard to see what he could have done to change it—without committing the US to a veritable forever war.

One can hardly discuss the legacy of 9/11 without mentioning the massive corruption the trillion $$$ wars engendered, not only in Afghanistan and Iraq but, above all, in the United States itself. For recent sources on this, see Sarah Chayes’ Sep. 3rd article in Foreign Affairs, “Afghanistan’s corruption was made in America: How self-dealing elites failed in both countries,” and Isaac Stanley-Becker’s report in The Washington Post (Sep. 4th) on how US military generals, notably Stanley McChrystal (incarnated by Brad Pitt in the Netflix movie ‘War Machine’), cashed in big time after their service in Afghanistan.

And then there’s Guantánamo. And torture. On this sinister legacy of 9/11, I will simply recommend the salutary Hollywood movie The Mauritanian (in France: Désigné coupable), on the story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, which is reviewed in The Conversation by UC-Santa Barbara sociology professor Lisa Hajjar, “‘The Mauritanian’ rekindles debate over Gitmo detainees’ torture – with 40 still held there,” who will soon be publishing a savant book on the general topic.

Closer to the homeland is a lengthy article by Jennifer Senior in the September issue of The Atlantic, “What Bobby McIlvaine left behind: Grief, conspiracy theories, and one family’s search for meaning in the two decades since 9/11.” I was prompted to read it while in the US last month, after seeing Anne Applebaum’s tweet, which enjoined her followers to “Drop what you are doing and read this.” So I picked up the issue off the coffee table and executed Ms. Applebaum’s directive. My 90-year-old mother likewise found the piece sufficiently compelling to read to the end.

UPDATE: On Jennifer Senior’s article in The Atlantic, film director Ava DuVernay tweeted

This long-read by @JenSeniorNY stayed with me. It’s about the ripples that each of our lives makes on other lives. In this case, the focus is a bright young man lost on 9/11 and the waves of pain and misunderstanding, but also purpose for those left behind.

To which Oprah Winfrey replied

Yes I read this. Found it striking. And haunting. What happens in just one family.

2nd UPDATE: Michelle Goldberg’s terrific Sep. 9th NYT column, “How 9/11 turned America into a half-crazed, fading power,” is a must-read.

3rd UPDATE: Fintan O’Toole’s review essay in the NYRB (Oct. 7th issue), “The lie of nation building,” is a tour de force. The lede: “From the very beginning, the problem with the US involvement in Afghanistan lay essentially in the deficits in American democracy.”

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I can hardly differ from my friend Stathis, whose sentiments here are mine. Along with countless millions—including at least half of those I follow on Twitter and Facebook—I have been riveted to the breaking news from Afghanistan over the past ten days, and particularly this past weekend, not to mention stunned and so deeply saddened by the spectacle. One thing I am not going to do, however, is play the Washington/media pundit blame game as to Who Lost Afghanistan. Biden is going to take the hit, as he should, for the calamitous manner in which the US withdrawal was executed—with the prospect of tens of thousands of Afghans who collaborated with the Americans over the years being stranded and at the mercy of the Taliban—but the larger calamity of Afghanistan and the US role there is not on him, and while Afghanistan may be, for part of elite opinion, an indelible stain on his record, it is doubtful that it will affect his job approval rating—not after his forceful statement on Monday—or the Democrats’ electoral prospects in 2022, for the simple reason that the larger American public just doesn’t care about Afghanistan.

The editor-in-chief of Rolling Stone gets it right:

As for the impact of Afghanistan on US “credibility,” the smart political scientist Marc Lynch thus tweets:

The fall of Kabul and ignominious end to the US presence is naturally being compared to Saigon 1975. On this, the brilliant young historian (notably of modern Algeria), Andrew Bellisari, who teaches at Fulbright University Vietnam, posted a commentary on his Facebook page on Sunday, which I am taking the liberty of copying-and-pasting: 

A lot of comparisons to Vietnam will be made today. They’ve been made since the beginning of our involvement in Afghanistan. They’ll continue for a long time after. Vietnam comparisons are inevitable. They’re everyone’s favorite because “Vietnam” still remains the most evocative shorthand for tragedy and misadventure we have in our journalistic lexicon.

As we see images of Chinooks taking off from the roof of the US embassy in Kabul it’s hard not to make the direct link to Saigon. But the real tragedy is that our handling of Afghanistan is far worse than what occurred in April 1975. In Vietnam, we negotiated a ceasefire and troop withdrawal with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1973 that held for two years. When the DRV began its Spring Offensive in March 1975, the People’s Army of Vietnam mobilized 270,000 troops and more than 300 tanks against the 1 million man Army of the Republic of Vietnam. As stunning at the RVN’s disintegration was, at least it occurred between the military forces of two well-equipped sovereign nations.

When North Vietnamese tanks carrying the flags of the southern revolutionary National Liberation Front rolled through the gates of the Dinh Độc Lập , Communist forces were barely two hours behind the last Marine helicopter out of the city. The fear and uncertainty that many South Vietnamese felt in the face of their city’s “liberation” was real. Acts of revenge did take place. Government employees and those who had worked with Americans were rounded up, certain families were blacklisted and relocated to “special economic zones” in undesirable parts of the countryside. “Re-education” (an imperfect translation of “học tập cải tạo“) took place at varying degrees of intensity as Communist forces struggled to win over “reactionary” elements and cement their authority, often in the face of small acts of protest and sabotage. Some were in camps for a few weeks of pro-forma political lessons. Others were held for years.

But the DRV and the Provisional Revolutionary Government had come to integrate the RVN into a unified nation under Communist rule. Proving they could rule competently and winning over the people was their most important goal. No massive violent retribution took place. There was no bloodbath. 20 years after the capture of Saigon, the US and Vietnam normalized diplomatic relations. I am a professor of history at a liberal arts college in Ho Chi Minh City.

The Taliban is not the Vietnamese Communist Party. With pickup trucks and Kalashnikovs they steamrolled the Afghan National Army and entered Kabul as US forces were caught off guard, scrambling to leave and get their Afghan allies out. Unlike in Vietnam, no serious effort to negotiate anything with the Taliban was ever attempted. Nor did we attempt to enforce whatever terms were agreed to. What we were hoping for was that the Taliban would hold off until we were out and then move in, precisely so we could avoid the Vietnamese comparison and save face. Meanwhile, we’d watch Afghanistan crumble at a distance. Now we get to watch in real time as 20 years of desultory interventionist liberalism implodes. Unlike in Vietnam, there may very well be a violent coda to Kabul’s capture. Perhaps not right away. Perhaps out of sight just a bit. But the Taliban will try to recreate the state it established in the 1990s. And those Afghans who we convinced to believe in the promises we made will suffer the most. In Afghanistan, the liberal arts college that the US constructed will be shuttered.

So make all the Vietnam comparisons you want. Post the side-by-side pictures of helicopters leaving. We get it: “history is repeating itself.” Wink, wink. But it’s not. It is a new tragedy rooted in lessons forgotten and ignored. But Kabul 2021 is not Saigon 1975. It’s worse. And it’s worse all the more for the brief interlude during which we convinced ourselves it wouldn’t be. Remember that next time.

Could America’s Afghanistan fiasco have been avoided? In a rather hyperbolically titled post in The Cosmopolitan Globalist substack site—edited by my good friend Claire Berlinski—”Biden betrays Afghanistan—and the world,” former airborne sergeant Michael Fumento, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, insists that the US could have thwarted a Taliban conquest with an open-ended force presence of several thousand troops—necessitating a formal denunciation of Trump’s 2020 Doha agreement, which Fumento asserts would have been justified—and with the US backing up the Afghan National Army with air power. The stalemate would have presumably lasted indefinitely, with US forces sustaining losses that Fumento deems acceptable (he suggests that the US should have done likewise in Vietnam after 1973).

WADR, in view of how quickly the Afghan army and state collapsed—simply vanished—it is delusional to think that a residual US military presence—for which there was no political support outside the Beltway—could have changed a thing apart from delaying the inevitable. The futility of the US/Western military engagement in Afghanistan was manifest to anyone who read nothing on the subject but merely watched the feature-length films on the Afghan war that came out over the past decade, which I wrote about in April.

But if one is to read just one article on the subject, let it be Anatol Lieven’s in Politico (Aug. 16), “Why Afghan forces so quickly laid down their arms: Opposing Afghan factions have long negotiated arrangements to stop fighting—something the U.S. either failed to understand or chose to ignore.”

If one wishes to read more articles, see, e.g., “How the good war went bad: America’s slow-motion failure in Afghanistan,” by Carter Malkasian in Foreign Affairs (March/April 2020); and “Afghan security forces’ wholesale collapse was years in the making,” by Craig Whitlock in The Washington Post (Aug. 16).

N.B. Whitlock is the author of WaPo’s “The Afghanistan Papers: A secret history of the war,” published in Dec. 2019. The lede: “At war with the truth: U.S. officials constantly said they were making progress. They were not, and they knew it, an exclusive Post investigation found.” It begins:

A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.

Going back a decade and some is a piece in Armed Forces Journal (Oct. 1, 2010) by Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, “War on the brink of failure: 7 obstacles stand in the way of success in Afghanistan.” The lede: “Absent a major change in the status quo that currently dominates in Afghanistan, the U.S.-led military effort there will fail to accomplish the president’s objectives and, despite our best effort to spin it otherwise, we will lose the war in Afghanistan.”

There was, needless to say, no major change in the status quo. On this, Davis, now a civilian, posted a commentary four days ago on a website called 19FortyFive, “Why Afghanistan is falling to the Taliban so fast.”

And then there’s this:

Peter Galbraith posted the following on Facebook four days ago:

I watch the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan with disbelief and horror. I first visited the country with the mujahideen on February 14, 1989—the day the Soviets withdrew—and served there as Deputy Head of the UN mission in 2009. So much went wrong but here is my very partial list of those most responsible for the fiasco.

1. The Afghan political and military leaders who were more interested in staying in power than doing anything while in office except for stealing as much as they could.

2. The US government which pumped so much money into Afghanistan that there was a lot to steal and it was easily stolen.

3. Hamid Karzai—Afghanistan’s first president was corrupt, ineffective, weird, and—after the massive fraud that accompanied his reelection, illegitimate. In 2009, he organized the fraud that got him a second term. That enabled him and his cronies to steal everything else.

4. Ban ki-Moon, the UN Secretary General who tolerated the massive fraud in the UN sponsored (and paid for) Afghanistan 2009 presidential elections. This undermined Obama’s surge which may have been the last chance to get it right.

5. David Petraeus, the other US military commanders and the so called strategic thinkers who all declared the Afghanistan War to be a counter-insurgency and also stated that successful counter-insurgencies require a local partner. They then pretended the corrupt Afghan government was a real partner when they knew it wasn’t.

6. USAID which built roads intended to raise rural incomes by getting farm products to market but actually enabled corrupt police to shakedown farmers. This won the Taliban new supporters and the new roads gave the Taliban speedy access to previously defensible areas like the Panjshir Valley (which neither the Soviets or the pre 2001 Taliban ever took).

7. Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan second president, who was a victim of Karzai’s fraud in the 2009 presidential elections and willingly took office—twice—thanks to massive electoral fraud. Ashraf is personally honest but when you come into office thanks to a stolen election, it is hard to crack down on the corrupt power brokers who got you there.

8. The US and UN architects of Afghanistan’s highly centralized constitution that was utterly inappropriate for a country that is as ethnically and geographically diverse as Afghanistan. Not only did the Constitution concentrate all power in Kabul at the expense of the provinces and districts but it also gave all power within Kabul to a Pashtun president as opposed to sharing power with an ethnically diverse parliament.

The rapid collapse follows a surrender agreement negotiated by Donald Trump and implemented by the Biden Administration. There is no reason to think the outcome would be any different if the US took another ten years to withdraw.

A comment by a former French ambassador to Washington (2014-19):

For more on the failed state in Afghanistan, see two remarkable, lengthy articles in The New Yorker—long form journalism at its best—from which I learned a lot: In the July 4, 2016 issue, by George Packer, “Afghanistan’s Theorist-in-Chief: President Ashraf Ghani is an expert on failed states. Can he save his country from collapse?” (response five years later: no); and in the March 8, 2021 issue, by Dexter Filkins, “Last Exit from Afghanistan: Will peace talks with the Taliban and the prospect of an American withdrawal create a breakthrough or a collapse?” (response: a collapse; also see/listen to the interview with Filkins on NPR’s Fresh Air).

Also this:

As for what happens now, of how the Taliban are going to rule, there is every reason to fear the worst. E.g. two Afghanistan specialists I esteem, Ahmed Rashid and Gilles Dorronsoro, assert that the Taliban has not fundamentally changed over the past two decades, and is, moreover, still in cahoots with Al-Qaida. But other esteemed specialists differ, e.g. Olivier Roy, who, in an interview (Aug. 16) in Ouest France, “‘On a sous-estimé la stratégie des talibans’,” argues that Taliban 2.0 has indeed evolved since it was ousted in 2001.

And then there’s the NYT guest essay (Aug. 17) by Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Center for the Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute, “How will the Taliban rule? Here’s the early evidence.”

Finally, do take four minutes of your time to read this:


UPDATE: Roane Carey, former managing editor of The Nation and friend, tells me that if one is looking to read just one book on post-2001 Afghanistan, to figure out what has happened there and why, it should be Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes (Metropolitan Books, 2014).

2nd UPDATE: This is useful.

3rd UPDATE: Sarah Chayes, who knows her subject better than just about any non-Afghan, has one of the best pieces one will read on Afghanistan, “The Ides of August,” on her website. I particularly like this passage:

And what did we [America] stand for? What flourished on our watch? Cronyism, rampant corruption, a Ponzi scheme disguised as a banking system, designed by U.S. finance specialists during the very years that other U.S. finance specialists were incubating the crash of 2008. A government system where billionaires get to write the rules.

Is that American democracy?


4th UPDATE: An article by CPW Gammell in Prospect magazine: “Herat is the cultural heart of Afghanistan. Can it survive the Taliban? A city of poets and artists, Herat once challenged Florence for splendour. In defiance of the Taliban, Heratis have tried to keep that spirit alive.”

5th UPDATE: Pakistani/American lawyer/author Rafia Zakaria has a provocative piece (Aug. 19) in Literary Hub, “How the War on Terror became America’s first ‘feminist’ war,” which is excerpted from her new, provocatively-titled book, Against White Feminism.

6th UPDATE: Ryan C. Crocker, former US ambassador to Pakistan (2004-07) and Afghanistan (2011-12), has a guest essay in the NYT (Aug. 21), “Why Biden’s lack of strategic patience led to disaster,” in which he argues—as does Michael Fumento above, though in a more measured tone—that the US could have maintained an open-ended military presence in Afghanistan.

One sympathizes with Crocker’s sentiments but political scientist Rajan Menon lays waste to such illusions in an excellent analysis (Aug. 20) posted on the Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft blog, “Why it’s wrong to blame Biden for the Afghanistan debacle: Washington elites are rightly horrified by the Taliban’s swift takeover, but more troops and more time wouldn’t have made a difference.”

7th UPDATE: Two Afghanistan-themed films seen on Netflix since posting. One is David Michôd’s 2017 War Machine, based on the late journalist Michael Hastings’ 2011 best-seller The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, and with the impeccably cast Brad Pitt’s character rather obviously inspired by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. It’s a mordant satire/black comedy, set in 2009-10, on the delusions and general absurdity of the US military, and, pace Ryan Crocker, of the utter futility of the US’ “nation-building” efforts in Afghanistan. Reviews were mixed, which I find puzzling—and totally disagree with—as it’s a very good film, with a sophisticated screenplay and well-drawn characters, and is spot-on in its critique (and which is particularly pertinent today). It was also notably shot in the United Arab Emirates, which I believe is a first for such a sizable-budget film. The Moviefone website justly says that ‘War Machine’ “might be the most wicked, funniest, and wackiest wartime satire since Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ (Yes, it’s really that good).” [UPDATE Aug. 27: Matt Stoller has a great discussion/review of ‘War Machine’ on his Substack site, “The war in Afghanistan is what happens when McKinsey types run everything.”]

The other film is Rod Lurie’s 2020 The Outpost, based on Jake Tapper’s 2012 best-seller (of course) The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor (reviewed here in Small Wars Journal), of a US army base camp in Nuristan province that was incomprehensibly located in a valley surrounded by steep mountains and swarming with Taliban fighters, and who launched an all-out assault on the camp in October 2009 (the film was shot in Bulgaria, where one apparently finds the appropriately rugged terrain). It’s a more classic war movie and which was generally well-reviewed. The ultimate battle scene is very well-done, as is the depiction of the soldiers’ band-of-brothers camaraderie. And the interactions of the latter with the local villagers—in which there is a manifest failure to communicate—underscores, perhaps unwittingly, the futility of the American enterprise in Afghanistan.

8th UPDATE: The NYT’s Alissa J. Rubin has a devastating, mind-boggling, must-read report (Aug. 23), “Did the war in Afghanistan have to happen? In 2001, when the Taliban were weak and ready to surrender, the U.S. passed on a deal. Nearly 20 years later, the Taliban hold all the cards.” Money quote:

It was in the waning days of November 2001 that Taliban leaders began to reach out to Hamid Karzai, who would soon become the interim president of Afghanistan: They wanted to make a deal.

“The Taliban were completely defeated, they had no demands, except amnesty,” recalled Barnett Rubin, who worked with the United Nations’ political team in Afghanistan at the time.

Messengers shuttled back and forth between Mr. Karzai and the headquarters of the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, in Kandahar. Mr. Karzai envisioned a Taliban surrender that would keep the militants from playing any significant role in the country’s future.

But Washington, confident that the Taliban would be wiped out forever, was in no mood for a deal.

“The United States is not inclined to negotiate surrenders,” Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said in a news conference at the time, adding that the Americans had no interest in leaving Mullah Omar to live out his days anywhere in Afghanistan. The United States wanted him captured or dead.

Almost 20 years later, the United States did negotiate a deal to end the Afghan war, but the balance of power was entirely different by then — it favored the Taliban.

On the Doha negotiations:

“When I heard the U.S. were going to meet in Doha with the Taliban and without the Afghan government, I said, ‘That’s not a peace negotiation, those are surrender talks,’” said Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to Afghanistan.

“So, now the talks were all about us retreating without the Taliban shooting at us as we went,” Mr. Crocker added, “and we got nothing in return.”

The deal the Trump administration struck did not enshrine rights for women, nor guarantee that any of the gains the United States had spent so many years, and lives, trying to instill would be preserved. Nor did it keep the Taliban from an all-out military push to take over the country.

It was not even a peace deal. Instead, it extracted a somewhat vague promise by the Taliban to prevent future attacks against the United States and its allies. And even that language was contested: In the agreement, the Taliban refused to accept the word “terrorist” to describe Al Qaeda.

N.B. Obama and Biden bear their share of responsibility for the Afghanistan fiasco but the Bush-Cheney administration and Trump bear far more.

Jeet Heer has an on-target post (Aug. 23) on his Substack site skewering the POVs of people like Ryan Crocker, “Lies about Afghanistan: Joe Biden’s critics in the national security establishment are pretending that the status quo is easily sustainable. That’s absurd.”

9th UPDATE: In the interests of fairness and balance, see the hard-hitting indictment (Aug. 16) of the US action by Pakistani/American columnist Mohammed Taqi in the Indian webzine The Wire, “Biden’s Afghanistan blunder will come back to haunt the US and its allies: Whatever else might be the consequences of the US debacle, Biden has virtually thrown Afghans to the wolves.”

Also take 7-minutes to listen to the anguished testimony of Pulitzer Prize-winning Afghan photo journalist Massoud Hossaini in Mediapart (Aug. 20, in English), who made it out of Kabul—to Turkey, then the Netherlands—in the nick of time.

NPR’s 1A program had a segment this morning (Aug. 24), “Afghan women on what’s at stake for women in Afghanistan,” that is worth the 47-minute listen time.

10th UPDATE: Linking to an NYT guest essay by Afghan national army commander General Sami Sadat—in which he asserts that the withdrawal of US military contractors was one of the factors causing the collapse of the ANA—Anne Applebaum poses this pertinent question:

A particularly delusional argument that the Taliban could have been indefinitely held at bay with 2,500 US troops remaining and US air power and contractors backing up the ANA’s elite units is advanced with insistence by retired US army Lt. Col. Brad Taylor in the National Review (Aug. 25), “The day Afghanistan died,” and where he makes the ridiculous analogy with the US in South Korea.

Ivo Daalder puts paid to this notion in a brief Twitter thread.

Shadi Hamid’s latest piece (Aug. 23) in The Atlantic, “Americans never understood Afghanistan like the Taliban did: In the end, few Afghans believed in a central government that they never felt was theirs,” is worth the read.

11th UPDATE: Ezra Klein settles the matter in an excellent column in the NYT (Aug. 26), “Let’s not pretend that the way we withdrew from Afghanistan was the problem.”

12th UPDATE: Onetime “neocon” Robert Kagan, who’s always interesting to read, has an essay in The Washington Post (Aug. 26), “It wasn’t hubris that drove America into Afghanistan. It was fear.” He manages not to mention the Iraq war once, but we’ll give him a pass on that.

Thomas Meaney, presently a fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen—and who writes excellently on a whole range of subjects—has a piece on the war in Afghanistan (Aug. 27) in the London Review of Books, which begins with a series of remarkable quotes and ends with this:

And, just as before, the women and girls of Afghanistan are foremost among the war lobby’s playing chips. They face violence from every quarter and their weaponisation by the West – as a post-hoc justification for invasion and now as an argument for continued occupation – only exposes how irrelevant the long-term future of Afghan women has been to the US project. The improvements in their health and education under the US occupation – as under the Soviet one – are incontrovertible. But to cheer on such progress in a Potemkin state is to lead people to the slaughter. There is talk of an effort on a par with that performed after the collapse of Saigon in 1975 to shelter refugees in coalition countries. But an exodus has been going on for years, and today taking in refugees isn’t the symbol of Western largesse that it was in the 1970s. ‘A simple way to take measure of a country,’ Tony Blair once said, ‘is to look at how many want in … and how many want out.’ That verdict came some time ago in Afghanistan.

13th UPDATE: Ashley Jackson, who is linked to above, enumerates “Five myths about the Taliban” in The Washington Post (Aug. 27). The myths are:

1. Pakistan controls the Taliban.
2. The Taliban fragments easily.
3. The Taliban has a plan for running Afghanistan.
4. The Taliban will bring back al-Qaeda.
5. The Taliban doesn’t reflect Afghanistan’s diversity.

In regard to myths 3 and 4, France’s two top specialists of Afghanistan, Gilles Dorronsoro and Adam Baczko, have a noteworthy tribune in Le Monde (Aug. 25), “‘Le mouvement taliban est paradoxalement dans une situation de faiblesse, le moment est propice pour négocier avec lui’: Dans une mesure limitée mais réelle, l’évolution du nouveau régime en Afghanistan dépendra de notre attitude à son égard.”

14th UPDATE: An exceptional report in The Washington Post (Aug. 28) on the fall of Kabul: “Surprise, panic and fateful choices: The day America lost its longest war.”

And do not miss the essay by Kevin Baker in Politico Magazine (Aug. 28): “The old cliché about Afghanistan that won’t die: ‘Graveyard of Empires’ is an old epitaph that doesn’t reflect historical reality — or the real victims of foreign invasions over the centuries.”

15th UPDATE: Another terrific article by Anatol Lieven, this in Prospect magazine (Aug. 27): “Nemesis: Why the west was doomed to lose in Afghanistan: And why it could be doomed for good—unless we learn from this catastrophic occupation unmoored from reality.”

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Afghanistan was supposed to be the “good war.” Just about everyone outside the far left—in the US and France, at least—supported the US intervention after 9/11, to smash Al Qaida and eject the Taliban; and, personally speaking, I didn’t waver on this over the years. When it comes to Afghanistan, I have long deferred to the views of two specialists. One is NYU political scientist Barnett Rubin, who quite simply knows Afghanistan better than anyone in the academic world anywhere—and who, in addition, had an Af-Pak policy position in the Obama administration. Whatever Barney Rubin says about Afghanistan, I’ll go with that. The other specialist is the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, whom I started to follow when the Taliban was in power, as he was reporting from Kabul at the time. In his book Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (Penguin Books, 2008), Rashid emphatically argued that a fully-funded US/Western/United Nations et al-led “nation building” project could have worked—that the Afghan people in their majority were willing to accept a foreign military presence during the time necessary to rebuild the country—but that the Bush-Cheney administration quickly turned its attention to Iraq and away from Afghanistan. There was a short window of opportunity to make positive things happen in Afghanistan but the US, as is its wont, blew it.

N.B. Barnett Rubin’s latest book: Afghanistan: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2020),

On President Biden’s announcement that the US will entirely withdraw its troops in September, I naturally follow Rubin on this (see, e.g., his United States Institute for Peace Afghan Peace Process Issues Paper of March 2021), as well as Fareed Zakaria—whose analyses are as level-headed and well-considered as they come—in his April 16th Washington Post column, “Biden is right. It’s time to end the forever war in Afghanistan.” (N.B. Zakaria, to his credit, does not speak of “forever wars” in the text of his column, an expression that the sharp MENA specialist Steven A. Cook calls a “cliché” in his latest piece in Foreign Policy). But the smart, erudite, never boring Adam Garfinkle is not so approving of Biden’s announcement, as he spells out in a commentary in The Bulwark (April 16th) on “Leaving Afghanistan: Lessons from Vietnam and Iraq.” The lede: “Spoiler alert: This never ends well.” Pessimism over the outcome in Afghanistan after the US departure may indeed be warranted, though it’s hard to see how a prolonged US military presence—and an indefinite Taliban insurgency—could somehow yield a more positive outcome. And particularly as a majority of Afghans, including secular women, are willing to give peace with the Taliban a chance.

And let’s face it: the United States simply lacks the competence and intelligence (in the opposite-of-stupidity sense) to successfully stabilize a country like Afghanistan, as Jason Dempsey—Afghan war veteran and adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security—makes clear in a must-read essay (April 25th) in Politico, “We got Afghanistan wrong [and] what our military misread over the past 20 years.”

On this broad subject, I watched on ARTE last month an excellent multinational/mainly German produced four-part documentary series (which first aired in April 2020) on the past sixty years of Afghan history, Afghanistan: Pays meurtri par la guerre (English title: ‘Afghanistan: The Wounded Land’), with exceptional film footage and interviews. Despite some gaps in the historical narrative it is, from a pedagogical standpoint, the best documentary treatment of that country one will find. Here is a description from a French website (fed through Google Translate and edited à ma guise), with links to the episodes from YouTube (a number of the interviews are in English but the narration is in French):

In four 53-minute episodes, the documentary deciphers Afghanistan’s relentless downward spiral into war and ruin. By way of numerous archives and exceptional testimonies (including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the rival of Commander Massoud; Sima Samar, Afghan Minister for the Status of Women from 2001 to 2003; but also a Taliban, a former CIA officer, and major of the ex-Red Army), it shows how the population found itself entrapped, with hopes and disillusion, by the conflict between the two superpowers of the Cold War and the subsequent civil war involving the Mujahideen and Taliban fundamentalism.

On February 29, 2020, the Americans and the Taliban reached a historic agreement. Can hope for peace finally emerge? What if it came from the oppressed half of the country: women. At the end of the documentary, two speak about this:

Nilofar Ibrahimi, re-elected to parliament in 2018: “I sat at the negotiating table with the Taliban, the Afghan woman is not the same as 20 years ago, they know they can no longer reduce us to silence, this country needs me and hundreds of women like me.”

Shukria Barazkai, also remained in Kabul: “We will solve this problem through discussion and negotiation. Through tolerance and mutual respect. We have the right to disagree but not to kill each other. I learned enormously from this war. We can hit rock bottom, be totally broken, but get up to rebuild our country and ourselves. That’s the beauty of Afghanistan.”

Episode 1 [“The Kingdom”] takes us back to the 1960s, under King Mohammed Zahir Shah, whose reign began in 1933 and during which Afghanistan witnessed its longest period of stability. But there is a big gap between Kabul, where the Westernized elite lives, and the countryside, which has 80% of the population. A severe drought destabilizes the king, who is overthrown in 1973. There is a Communist coup in 1978 and instability begins. On December 27, 1979, the USSR sends its troops to Afghanistan to rescue the Communist regime.

Episode 2 [“The Soviet army”] traces the ten years of war between the Soviet army and the Afghan rebellion, ten years which bled the country dry. Over a million civilians were killed and up to five million crossed the border to seek refuge in Pakistan and Iran.

Episode 3 [“Mujahideen and Taliban”] sees the commanders Ahmed Shah Massoud, an Islamic moderate, and Hekmatyar the fundamentalist engage in internecine warfare, which causes the arrival of a new force in 1996: the Taliban. Al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, develops its murderous ideology there. On September 11, 2001, despite Commander Massoud’s warning to the Americans, Al-Qaeda succeeded in carrying out its plan: to strike at the heart of the United States.

Episode 4 [“The NATO troops”] tells about the American and NATO reaction, the collapse in November 2001 of the fundamentalist regime, the hunt for Bin Laden… Democracy emerges, wearing the burqa is no longer compulsory but the extreme poverty and widespread corruption are slowly undermining the country. The Taliban, who had managed to blend into society after their debacle, are regaining ground. And we arrive at today’s deal filled with uncertainties with a thin thread of hope.

A few random comments. First, the images of Kabul in the 1960s and ’70s—of unveiled women pursuing higher education and in the workforce—are a striking reminder of how Afghanistan was modernizing during those decades, without the heavy hand of dictatorship (cf. Iran and Arab states of the era), and what could have been had the country not gone off the rails from 1978 on. Second, it is manifest that the responsible party in triggering the country’s descente aux enfers was Afghanistan’s Communists and the coup d’État they staged in April 1978—their first act being the physical liquidation of President Daoud Khan (who had not been a nasty dictator) and his entire family, including the children. Not an auspicious beginning for a new political order. The Communists were Jacobins on steroids, who, armed with bayonets, were determined to bring modernity to the very conservative rural population whether the latter liked it or not, thus provoking the inevitable, religiously-inspired reaction. As the Communists’ social base was too narrow, the Soviet Union thus made the fateful decision to rescue its client regime from inevitable collapse. Third, the Soviet intervention accelerated Afghanistan’s downward spiral. The US military has killed its share of civilians in its many wars but the Soviet army—which has never paid even lip service to winning hearts and minds—was on another level altogether in Afghanistan. Fourth, the open-ended NATO counter-insurgency was destined to be an unwinnable quagmire—when the short window of opportunity mentioned above passed—in the same way as it was for the Soviets—and for every foreign intervention in Afghanistan’s history. Fifth, the Afghan interviewees in the documentary love their country and profess optimism for its future, however incongruous such sentiments may seem to outsiders. And the women, insisting that Afghanistan has changed over the past two decades, seem not to fear peace with the Taliban, who, they contend, will not try to lock them up as during the 1996-2001 period. Inshallah.

The Soviet army in Afghanistan—specifically, the experience of a Soviet soldier who was captured by the mujahideen—was the theme of a good French film that came out in 2006, L’Étoile du soldat, directed by the prolific filmmaker-journalist Christophe de Ponfilly, who had made a number of reporting trips to Afghanistan (Ahmed Shah Massoud was the subject of at least three of his documentaries). The film, which was shot in Afghanistan and Russia and adapted from the late de Ponfilly’s eponymous novel—itself based on an actual experience of his—is worth seeing (if one can find it).

There have been a dozen or so feature-length films on Afghanistan under the Taliban or post-2001 that have come out over the past two decades (that I’ve seen at least; there are no doubt more but that didn’t make it to France or I somehow missed). The one Hollywood production is German director Marc Forster’s 2007 The Kite Runner, adapted from the best-selling novel by the Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini. (As for Mike Nichols’ 2007 Charlie Wilson’s War, which is entertaining and fun, this doesn’t count).

Four films focus on women and their status in that hyper-patriarchal society: Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s 2001 Kandahar, which was shot in Iran and clandestinely in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan; the 2003 Osama, directed by Siddiq Barmak, based on a real life story during the Taliban era about an 11-year-old girl in Kabul who passes for a boy in order to go to school but, with the onset of puberty, has her true gender revealed and with not nice things then happening to her; Atiq Rahimi’s 2013 Syngue Sabour: The Patience Stone, which I reviewed here; and the 2013 Wajma, an Afghan Love Story, by Barmak Akram, set among the post-Taliban Kabul middle class and which presents such a bleak picture of the female condition that I tweeted this after seeing it.

These films are all worthwhile, particularly ‘Syngue Sabour’ and ‘Osama’. When the latter came out, we saw it en famille, which provided a pedagogical moment for our then 10-year-old daughter. As it happens, the protagonist—the girl who disguises as a boy—named Nadia Ghulam in real life, is one of the interviewees in the documentary series discussed above, now in her mid-30s and speaking in Spanish, as one learns that, sponsored by a Spanish NGO, she relocated in 2006 to Spain, where she pursued higher education and is now settled.

As for war-related films on the NATO intervention, there have been six by my count over the past decade, with, interestingly enough, only one being American, the very good 2010 Restrepo, but which was a documentary. The others have been European, on the participation of soldiers from other contingents of the NATO coalition, which Americans have only been dimly aware of (if at all). When Trump would go on about the NATO allies not pulling their weight or for freeloading off the US—and whose casualties sustained in this US-initiated war he was certainly ignorant of—I wanted to spit in his face (among the countless times I dreamt of doing such).

Probably the best of these war films is the 2014 German Inbetween Worlds (French title: Entre deux mondes), by Austrian director Feo Aladag—whose excellent 2011 When We Leave, on the subject of honor killings among Turks in Germany, I reviewed here—and that was shot on location in northern Afghanistan, which was kind of a daring thing to do. The reviews in Variety, IndieWire, and The Hollywood Reporter describe the plot better than I can (as it’s been 6½ years since I saw the pic). The beginning of the latter review merits quoting:

Anyone who believes Western military intervention in Afghanistan is a huge waste of time and lives will probably have their opinion confirmed by Inbetween Worlds, a beautifully shot art house film that takes the audience behind the scenes of a German Army unit defending a village from Taliban attacks. Another viewer could argue that director Feo Aladag shows precisely the opposite: the urgent need for Western and Afghani cooperation to win the conflict, at a time when German troops are preparing to withdraw from the country after more than a decade.

The depiction of the interaction between the Western soldiers and the Afghan villagers, who are supposed to be collaborating with the foreigners against the Taliban but who knows?—there is a manifest failure to communicate, and with the Afghan translator endangering his and family’s lives by the mere fact of having his job—led me, at least, to the first sentiment, of sensing the futility of the NATO engagement

Here are brief descriptions of the other films.

Kajaki (a.k.a. Kilo Two Bravo; in France: En terrain miné), directed by Paul Katis. This one, which came out in 2015, tells the true story of British paratroopers, in 2006, who found themselves trapped in a Soviet-era minefield and with the Taliban lurking in the vicinity. It’s a tense film, well-analyzed in this review in The Guardian by historian and screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann, “Kajaki – an impressive war movie with questions and ballistic grit.”

A War (same title in France), by the well-known Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm, who has directed and/or written the screenplays for a number of first-rate Danish films and series (including the excellent ‘Borgen’) over the past decade. This one, which was an Academy Award nominee in 2016 for best foreign language film, is similar to ‘Inbetween Worlds’ (though was shot in Turkey and Spain) in depicting the Western soldiers (here, Danes—though it doesn’t matter where they’re from—in Helmand province) fighting an impossible war in a country they don’t understand and whose rural population could not be more culturally alien. And with the inevitable killing of civilians—accidental or deliberate—which happens here. A very good film.

This is actually the second Danish film with an Afghan war theme, the first being Susanne Bier’s 2004 Brothers (Brødre), which I saw when it opened in France and remember thinking good.

Two French films, one Ni le ciel ni la terre (English title: The Wakhan Front), directed by Clément Cogitore, which premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Here, French soldiers patrol a sector in the Wakhan Corridor, near Pakistan, which is relatively peaceful (the pic is shot in Morocco), but one night weird things start to happen and with soldiers vanishing, though not from engagement with the Taliban. The film, which was engaging enough up to this point, albeit somewhat low octane, descends into the supernatural, which, not being a fan of the fantasy genre, I didn’t care for too much. But others may think differently. The cast is good (Jérémie Renier, Kévin Azaïs, Swann Arlaud), as are US reviews, e.g., in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Screen Daily.

The other film is Voir du pays (English title: The Stopover), directed by the sister tandem Delphine and Muriel Coulin, and which premiered at Cannes in 2016. This one I liked more. It’s entirely set in Cyprus, where French soldiers freshly arrived from Afghanistan are “decompressing” at an upscale seaside resort hotel, while attending sessions organized by their superior officers to deal with PTSD and review their recent action in Afghanistan, in which one of their comrades was killed. The protags are two female soldiers—the fine actress Ariane Labed and singer-actress Soko—with one of the film’s themes the uneasy role of women in the army, with its macho, hyper-masculine culture. The thumbs up reviews in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter get it right.

For the record, an Afghanistan war veteran’s PTSD figured in the 2015 Franco-Belgian film Maryland (English title: Disorder), directed by Alice Winocour and which also premiered at Cannes. It’s a slick thriller starring Matthias Schoenaerts (who suffers from the PTSD) and Diane Kruger, though is set entirely on the French Riviera (and mainly in a villa called Maryland), not at all in Afghanistan.

UPDATE: Gilles Dorronsoro of the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, who is France’s leading political science specialist of Afghanistan, has an informative, not-too-optimistic article (April 29th) in the high-quality webzine AOC, “Qui sont les Taliban?” While the Taliban has evolved in certain respects over the past two decades, he observes, notably in attitudes toward technology, it remains rigidly fundamentalist, particularly when it comes to women. And the relationship with Al-Qaida remains largely intact.

2nd UPDATE: Journalist and lawyer Jill Filipovic, who specializes in women’s issues, has a post (April 22nd) on her Substack site, “In the country of men: What does the US owe the Afghan women we’re leaving behind?” In it, she links to what she says is “a really excellent report from the Crisis Group” dated April 6, 2020, “What will peace talks bode for Afghan women?”

3rd UPDATE: Excellent tribune in Le Monde dated May 2-3, by Adam Baczko (CNRS, CERI-Sciences Po) and Gilles Dorronsoro, “La guerre en Afghanistan, première défaite historique pour l’OTAN.”

4th UPDATE: Newlines Magazine—which is new to me and looks to be good quality—has an interesting, knowledgeable article (April 26th) by Austro-Afghan journalist Emran Feroz, “What the CIA did (and didn’t do) in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan: Western leftists think the CIA created al Qaeda by helping the mujahideen shoot down Russian helicopters. They’re wrong.” (h/t Jamie Mayerfeld)

5th UPDATE: Le Monde dated May 30-31 has an enquête by Jacques Follorou datelined Kabul, “Vingt ans après leur intervention en Afghanistan, les Américains s’en vont sur un sentiment d’échec.” The lede: “Privilégiant la lutte contre le terrorisme à la reconstruction du pays, les Etats-Unis ont multiplié les changements de stratégies depuis 2001. Ils quitteront le sol afghan début juillet sans avoir remporté la guerre la plus longue de leur histoire, laissant les talibans en position de force.”

Follorou’s article is followed by a full page interview with Ahmed Rashid, “‘Les talibans n’ont jamais montré la volonté d’aboutir à la paix’.” The lede: “En actant un retrait inconditionnel des troupes américaines d’Afghanistan, le président Joe Biden prend un risque énorme, analyse cet expert pakistanais. Les liens entre les insurgés et Al-Qaida constituent une menace à long terme”…

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[update below]

What a way to ring in the new decade. I’ve been reading about the Qasem Soleimani assassination for a good part of the day, plus discussing it with dear friend Adam Shatz, who has an instant commentary up on the LRB website, “Trump declares war.” Soleimani was certainly a “bad guy”—in a world where bad guys are a dime a dozen—but terminating him with extreme prejudice was a colossally stupid thing to do and for a number of reasons. E.g. one reads in a must-read portrait of Soleimani in The Daily Beast, dated August 7, 2018, by the well-known Middle East correspondant Borzou Daragahi, “Is the Iranian general taunting Trump on a U.S. hit list?”:

Many described the idea of targeting Suleimani as counterproductive, entailing untold risks without any guaranteed benefits. In 2008, Suleimani, famously approached then U.S. General David Petraeus to inform him that he was the guy who could stop the rocket attacks hitting U.S. bases in Iraq. Since then the U.S. has managed to communicate indirectly with Suleimani through Iraq’s Kurds and other officials. The senior Obama administration national security official said the U.S. contemplated directly reaching out to Suleimani to ask him to rein in militias bombing American troops as they were attempting to withdraw from the country in 2011.

In the pantheon of rogues, troublemakers and warlords playing the Middle East’s games of infiltration and subterfuge, Suleimani’s a guy you can at least talk to.

Andrew Exum, who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East policy in the Obama administration, writes in The Atlantic that Soleimani was Iran’s “indispensable man,” thus irreplaceable. I’m dubious that anyone in a large organization is indispensable and, as Daniel W. Drezner reminds us, ‘[s]tandard international relations theory suggests that decapitating a key leader would not fundamentally affect that state’s capacity to act.” And political science MENA specialist Marc Lynch tersely tweeted, “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.” Borzou Daragahi continues:

“There’s a verified public history of the U.S. making outreach efforts,” said a former CIA official who served in Iraq and worked on Iran. “[Suleimani is] still an asshole. But we know his mentality. We know him. It’s not a secret what he does.”

There’s another consideration. Some former officials liken Suleimani to a sort of Ho Chi Minh, overseeing a cabal of brasher, bolder and more ruthless young men eager for action and recognition. Get rid of Hajj Qasem, as he is known by his supporters in the Shiite world, and power might pass into the hands of a more reckless young tough eager to make a name for himself. ”If there’s a younger, more ruthless generation waiting in the wings, I’d rather stick to granddad,” said the former CIA official.

N.B. The Israelis have had plenty of experience assassinating top bad guys in Hizbullah and Hamas, with both now stronger than ever.

If one missed it at the time, Dexter Filkins had a lengthy portrait of Soleimani, “The shadow commander,” in the September 30, 2013, issue of The New Yorker.

Gary Sick has a particularly excellent analysis, “Trump lit a fire by exiting the Iran deal & poured gasoline on it by assassinating Soleimani,” posted on the Responsible Statecraft blog.

Also see the irate post by The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan, “Four years ago, Trump had no clue who Iran’s Suleimani was. Now, he may have kicked off WWIII.” Money quote:

This is not a column, however, about the consequences of the United States government assassinating the second-most powerful man in Iran… Rather, this is a column that allows me to express my ongoing astonishment that Donald Trump is president of the United States; my ongoing bewilderment with a world in which an unhinged, know-nothing former reality TV star and property developer, with zero background in foreign affairs or national security, may have just kicked off World War III. (From his golf course, no less.)

Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment has a tweet storm on Soleimani (here) that is worth reading. Likewise with Politico Europe’s Rym Momtaz (here). Both are dubious that we’re looking at WWIII.

Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution writes in The Washington Post that Iran will “bide its time” and that we should not “expect immediate retaliation for Soleimani,” though concludes that “[n]either Trump nor Tehran may really want a war, but each side has proved unwilling or incapable of detouring from a path that will almost inexorably precipitate a much wider and more costly conflict.” Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative writes in the NY Times that “Qassim Suleimani’s killing will unleash chaos.” Robin Wright, who has been writing about the Islamic Republic of Iran forever, and Fred Kaplan are very much on the same wavelength.

As for “The Democrats’ gutless response to Trump’s airstrike,” maybe more on that another time.

À suivre.

UPDATE: Julia Ioffe, who is normally a first-rate journalist, has a piece in GQ arguing that a war with Iran would all but guarantee Trump’s reelection (people rallying around the flag, etc). Arguing the opposite is UC-Irvine political scientist Michael Tesler, writing in Monkey Cage, who posits that “[a]ttacking Iran won’t help Trump win reelection.” A key initial factor in public opinion supporting a war and thus the president, he says, is a bipartisan elite consensus, which was the case in past major wars (Iraq, Vietnam, etc). This is not likely to obtain if Trump launches a war with the Islamic Republic.

À propos, Bernie Sanders gave a speech (excellent) last night (Jan. 3rd) at a town hall in Iowa strongly condemning Trump’s Iran action and talk of war (watch here, from 46:00). And Elizabeth Warren had a strongly-worded series of tweets (here) in the same vein. Andrew Yang is also on this wavelength. If Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and other candidates occupying the moderate lane—plus Nancy Pelosi and the congressional leadership—were to acquiesce in a Trump war with Iran—or even tone down the critique—this would blow the Democratic Party apart, a consequence being that Trump would indeed win in November. For this reason, I will wager that in the ghastly eventuality that a war happens, Biden, Pelosi & Co will align themselves with the Sanders-Warren-Yang position.

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Australia had a parliamentary election on Saturday, if one didn’t know, with the outcome a shocker, as the incumbent conservative coalition led by PM Scott Morrison won against all expectations, the polls having unanimously pointed to a decisive Labor Party victory. One does not have to care one way or another about Australian politics to regret this result, as the very conservative Morrison—who’s a Pentecostal (already one strike against him)—is not good on the climate change issue—which is particularly important there (Great Barrier Reef, etc)—and is downright execrable on immigration, which he was in charge of as a government minister in 2013-14, putting in place Australia’s cruel policy of sending asylum seekers (principally from Iran and Afghanistan) to Christmas Island, Nauru, and Papua New Guinea, where they are kept in what are in effect prison camps for years on end, their asylum applications rejected but with repatriation manifestly inadvisable (if one wishes to read about this—and be indignant—see the reportages by Roger Cohen here and here). Scott Morrison is not a good man.

One of the news articles I read about the Australian election referred to “the cut-throat world of politics in Canberra.” As it so happens, I just watched in the past month—on the recommendation of a political science friend—the full two seasons (six episodes each) of the riveting Australian Netflix series Secret City, which is entirely set in and around Canberra (with a few brief scenes in Adelaide in season 2). It’s all about espionage, geopolitics, and just Australian politics, and boy, it sure is cut-throat, both figuratively and [spoiler alert!] literally. Here’s a brief description from IMDb:

Beneath the placid facade of Canberra, amidst rising tension between China and America, senior political journalist Harriet Dunkley uncovers a secret city of interlocked conspiracies, putting innocent lives in danger including her own.

That’s as much as one needs to know. The screenplay is sophisticated—it’s very well written—the pacing impeccable, and the acting first rate. It’s an Aussie answer to the brilliant French series The Bureau (and is, needless to say, on a far higher level than ‘Homeland’). It’s just all around excellent. In the first season the bad guys appear to be China but that’s somewhat of a ruse, as in season 2 [spoiler alert!], a Deep State theme is developed (yes, there is indeed one Down Under). The message, and which holds everywhere: if you want to know where the real threat to your homeland comes from—to your security and freedoms—look at your own state. The threat is at home.

A sub-theme in season 2 [spoiler alert!] is drone warfare, of Australian military drones in action over Afghanistan and Pakistan, as part of the international coalition in that conflict—and of the PTSD-suffering drone pilot having notched 448 kills, so we learn, not all of whom were Taliban and other bad guys. This reminded me of the 2015 Hollywood movie, Good Kill, by director Andrew Niccol, which, to my knowledge, was the first one of its sort to focus on the ethical dilemmas of military drones, here via the états d’âme of the protag drone pilot, played by Ethan Hawke, who kills people in Af-Pak daily—who may or may not be combattants—whom he sees on his console screen at a base in Nevada, after which he goes home to wife and children in his sub-division. The film deals ably with its subject, though is somewhat marred by a Hollywoodish sub-plot about the protag’s marital problems. Reviews were middling, including in France, but the pic may certainly be seen (and Allociné spectateurs liked it more than did the critics).

On drone warfare and the effects it has on the soldiers who wage it via remote control, see the excellent New York Times Magazine article (June 13, 2018) by Eyal Press, “The wounds of the drone warrior.” And going back a few years: “Confessions of a drone warrior,” by Matthew Power, in GQ; “Everything we know so far about drone strikes,” by Cora Currier, in ProPublica; and Jane Mayer’s “The predator war: What are the risks of the C.I.A.’s covert drone program?,” in The New Yorker.

Back to ‘Secret City’, as much as I liked it I hope it doesn’t go to a third season. It achieved closure at the end of season 2. Nothing is left hanging and it said what it needed to say.

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[update below]

Adam Shatz—contributing editor at the London Review of Books and dear personal friend—did a two-hour podcast interview with Olivier Roy, the well-known political Islam specialist, earlier this month, the first part of which is up on the LRB website. The podcast coincides with the publication of the English translation of Roy’s 2014 En quête de l’Orient perdu: entretiens avec Jean-Louis Schlegel, which is an interview-memoir about his life and career. In the first part of the podcast, Roy talks about his soixante-huitard youth, 1970s engagement with the Parisian extreme left, and his years of field work, as it were, in the 1980s with the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Très intéressant. I’ll post the second part of the interview in an update when it goes up this week.

UPDATE: The second part of the podcast is up on the LRB website. I find it even more interesting than the first. Roy talks, entre autres, about his knock-down-drag-out Parisian academic brawl with the Islamologist Gilles Kepel (for the uninitiated, see here, here, and here). The two really don’t like one another. For the anecdote, I received an invitation from a high-profile US-based foreign policy-oriented journal/webzine to write an article about the brawl when it was in full swing last year but politely declined. I didn’t want to touch this one with a ten-foot pole (as, entre autres, I had already published an essay some two decades prior rubbishing Kepel, which he neither forgot nor forgave). Though I lean toward Roy in the brawl, I don’t think their respective arguments—Islamization of radicalism vs. radicalization of Islam—are mutually exclusive. Both their approaches—and what they bring to the table generally—are interesting and can be synthesized. As an American political science MENA specialist friend—who is friends with Kepel but stayed clear of his conflict with Roy—wrote on social media last year: “The level of analysis and debate [on Islam, radicalization, and terrorism] is so far ahead [in France] of what we have in the US it’s almost embarrassing.”

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

The SIG MCX, a.k.a. the “Black Mamba.” That’s the assault weapon Omar Mateen used to commit his massacre. And which he, of course, purchased legally. Over the counter. As just about any person may in the state of Florida, as in much of the United States, even if he is a hate-spewing psychopath—as Mateen manifestly was—and/or has expressed an affinity with radical Islamist groups. To see what this rifle is about, watch the videos here. Anyone who can defend the freedom to acquire such weapons over the counter is not one with whom I can have any sort of dialogue. Repeating for the umpteenth time, what happened in Orlando is a uniquely American tragedy. Israeli journalist Anshei Pfeffer argued as much in the JDF, observing that though there are similarities between Islamic State-inspired or organized terrorist attacks in the US and those in Europe, these similarities end when it comes to the availability of weapons of war to civilians, which, he asserted

is inconceivable to outsiders. Not just the ease with which a “civilian version” of a military assault rifle can be bought over the counter, but the possibility of loading it with customized magazines holding 100 bullets, more than three times the number even armies use. The potential for bloodshed by one isolated and individual attacker is so much greater.

This availability of weapons enables isolated American Muslims with anger management problems—the Muslim population in America otherwise being well-to-do and thoroughly integrated—to express their rage in freelance bloodbaths such as the one yesterday in Orlando, whereas such is much more difficult in Europe, where Muslim populations contain larger numbers of extremists but who necessitate mobilization into cells of transnational terrorist organizations in order to commit mayhem, as in Paris and Brussels. If the US had stricter gun legislation, it would face no domestic jihadist terrorist threat.

On “lone wolf” terrorists, see Isaac Chotiner’s must-read interview in Slate with political scientist Jeffrey D. Simon, author of the 2013 book Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat.

Academic blogger Juan Cole has an instant analysis, “Omar Mateen and rightwing homophobia: Hate crime or domestic terrorism?” See also sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer’s blog post, “Orlando massacre: ISIS inspired or homophobic attack?”

France 24 reporter-blogger and friend Leela Jacinto, who has reported extensively from Afghanistan over the years, has been looking into the curious case of the Orlando shooter’s father, Seddique Mateen, “Sins of the father do not apply to the Orlando nightclub attacker.” Money quote

By all accounts Mateen Senior is bombastic, delusional, prolix and probably dyslexic. In some crazy phase of his prolific, self-made media career, he proclaimed himself president of Afghanistan. That’s how batty he is.

But like many parents of kids who have jumped on the Daesh/Islamic State (IS) group killing train, he has never advocated killing people who disagree with him.

This is consistent with the generational break we are witnessing between immigrant parents who have left their native lands and their children who have a limited, at best, grasp of their parents’ countries of birth.

Leela quotes Barnett Rubin of Columbia University, the world’s leading political science authority on Afghanistan, who has also been on the Omar Mateen père story

As Barnett Rubin, a leading expert on Afghanistan, tweeted, “Orlando shooter’s dad Seddique Mateen doesn’t support Taliban or anything but himself. No wonder his son was unstable. Look at his FB page.”

After examining what he deliciously called Mateen’s “logorrhean FB page,” Rubin not surprisingly concludes, “He is a nut”.

Not nearly as much as his son, alas.

As for the fallout on the US presidential campaign, there will be none, except perhaps to reinforce Hillary and make the specter of Trump in the White House that much more alarming. If terrorism becomes an issue in the fall campaign, Hillary can only benefit. More on this another time.

UPDATE: See the powerful “Reflections on Orlando” by New York LGBT blogger Michael Bouldin.

2nd UPDATE: On the matter of guns, Huff Post foreign affairs reporter Jessica Schulberg has a piece explaining “what happened when a terrorist attacked LGBT people in a country with strict gun laws.” The country in question is Israel. The lede: “There’s no right to bear arms in Israel, and the death count in recent terror attacks is much lower than in terror-inspired U.S. mass murders.” Right-wing Americans who adhere to the NRA (and AIPAC) viewpoint are invited to read this and, if they care to do so, respond to it.

3rd UPDATE: Watch Vox’s extraordinary seven-minute video, “America’s gun problem, explained.”

4th UPDATE: WaPo reporters Kevin Sullivan and William Wan have a must-read portrait (June 17th) of Omar Mateen, “Troubled. Quiet. Macho. Angry. The volatile life of the Orlando shooter.” It wasn’t sympathy for the Islamic State which drove him to commit mass murder, that’s for sure.

Also see the report (June 18th) by TDB’s Shane Harris, Brandy Zadrozny, and Katie Zavadski, “The unhinged home that raised Orlando killer Omar Mateen.” Talk about a dysfunctional family, and for whom religion was clearly not central.

5th UPDATE: Slate’s Isaac Chotiner, in an Orlando-related piece (June 22nd), “The Islamization of radicalism,” interviews Olivier Roy “on the misunderstood connection between terror and religion.”

New York Daily News_June 13 2016

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Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, if one hadn’t heard, is considered to be a foreign policy heavyweight in the GOP, or at least more knowledgeable and thoughtful on the general subject than the other candidates of his party, perhaps Lindsey Graham excepted. Rubio is naturally opposed to the Iran deal and explained why in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, which was published twelve days ago on The Atlantic website. My friend Claire Berlinski, who is situated on Rubio’s side of the political spectrum, is impressed with what Rubio says to Goldberg, writing on the Ricochet blog—where she’s an editor—that Rubio “makes sense.”

Well, I beg to differ with my friend Claire, as I don’t think Rubio makes sense at all. I think he makes nonsense, and along with the rest of his GOP associates on the Iran question (not to mention on every other question)—though, I will grant, he does come across as more thoughtful, at least superficially, in proffering his nonsense. As I am not a dues-paying member of the Ricochet blog—so may therefore not post comments there—and in lieu of sending Claire a private email, I will post my critique of Rubio’s nonsense here on AWAV.

Rubio thus tells Goldberg (N.B. all block quotes are of Rubio, unless otherwise indicated)

Well, I was just reading out of the text of the agreement, and I assure you that the Iranians interpret it the way that I alluded to, which is that if they come under cyberattack or any other effort to sabotage their program, then not just the U.S., but all the world powers, will have the obligation to assist them technically in defeating those measures. Now obviously Kerry and the administration would say that their reading of this is that we’re trying to protect them from some sort of terrorist group, for example.

Rubio is no doubt referring to the JCPOA’s Annex III.D.10 on nuclear security, in the context of civil nuclear cooperation. There is no mention in this clause of any “obligation” in regard to technical assistance. The operative passage here is “co-operation in the form of training courses and workshops.” This seems uncontroversial and not something to set off alarm bells. Also, one wonders how Rubio can know in advance how the Iranians are going to interpret the clause.

There are companies and banks around the world that might be considering making significant investments in Iran, and what they need to know is that if they make a significant investment in Iran and a future administration reimposes sanctions, or Iran violates the deal, or Iran conducts some outrageous act of terrorism around the world and [is] sanctioned for it,

An “outrageous act of terrorism around the world”?  The last time Iran was accused of such a thing was in Buenos Aires in 1994 but, while the Iranian regime was surely behind that one, such has not definitively been proven and twenty-one years after the fact. No specific sanctions were imposed on Iran as a consequence. So why, pray, would a hypothetical recidivist attack in some far-flung corner of the world—for which Tehran would deny any responsibility and could not be proven—now get Iran in hot water?

your investment could be lost. If you go into Iran and build a pharmaceutical plant, and you invest all this money to build it, and then suddenly Iran does something, and now you’re subject to sanctions if you continue to do business with them, you’re going to lose that investment. And so I do think that it’s important for investors and others around the world who are looking to do more business with Iran to be very conscious about this, because they’re basically gambling that this regime is not violating the deal or doing something new that could impose sanctions.

Once the JCPOA is implemented and the UN and other sanctions are progressively lifted, companies, banks, and other investors will make investment decisions in Iran based on that, as well as on business-related criteria. And in the event of a complaint about Iran to the UNSC from one of the E3/EU+3 and that results in snapback sanctions, investments already made in Iran will not be affected, as—and the JCPOA is explicit on this—there will be no retroactivity in regard to contracts signed before a hypothetical reinstatement of UN sanctions.

As for a future US administration unilaterally reimposing sanctions, this cannot and will not affect non-US investments in Iran, as any attempt by the US to impose sanctions on third countries will provoke a firestorm in US relations with its E3/EU+3 partners, not to mention just about everyone else. Unless the US formally commits to issuing blanket waivers, it will be subjected to the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Mechanism—the EU and/or other WTO members will be certain to file a complaint—and the US will lose, period, as third country sanctions are, except in exceptional circumstances, illegal in international law.

If the US ignores the certain WTO/DSM ruling and seeks to bar offending foreign companies and financial institutions from the US market anyway, the US will be an international outlaw. A rouge state. And it will still lose in the end.

Well, the likeliest way it’s going to happen is there will be some facility somewhere in Iran that we have suspicions about, and the IAEA will go to Iran and say, “We want to see this facility.” And Iran will say, “This is outrageous. We’re not showing you anything.” And they’ll go through a 24-day process back and forth, and ultimately it won’t be a massive thing, it’ll be an incremental thing, and Iran will say to the world, “Are you going to blow up this entire arrangement and allow us to go off and do whatever we want over this small technical issue?” And there will be a series of small, incremental violations like that, that ultimately over time will wear down the enforcement mechanism. And unless you absolutely catch them in a Cuban missile crisis-style situation, with pictures, red-handed, the world’s not going to force it, because there’ll be too many vested interests economically in Europe and around the world arguing against it. (…)

Well, I just think in their mind, they figure, “We can game this thing for a while. We still haven’t developed a long-range rocket anyway. You know, we didn’t necessarily intend to have a bomb in the next 48 months anyway. So, let’s go ahead and incrementally wear on this thing while we aim for modern-day centrifuge capabilities, while we rebuild our economy, while we rebuild our conventional capability.”

Rubio is engaging in what we in France call a discussion de café de commerce. In other words, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s tossing out half-baked hypotheses and idly speculating. On Iran’s eventual behavior when the JCPOA comes into effect, Rubio is quite sure the Iranians will cheat. For opponents of the Iran deal, it is a mantra that the Iranians are cheaters. This almost goes without saying; as if cheating is an Iranian cultural trait, congenital to the national character. Now it is, of course, possible that Iran will surreptitiously seek to contravene its treaty obligations, which is why the JCPOA contains inspection measures that the vast majority of arms control experts consider to be exceptionally robust. But seriously, why do Rubio and other deal opponents think Iran will cheat? Does the Islamic Republic of Iran have a history of not respecting bi- or multilateral agreements it has signed? If so, it would be helpful to have examples (I can’t think of any offhand). And why should Iran be trusted less than, say, the Soviet Union was, or any other adversary with whom the US signed arms control agreements over the decades (or agreements of any kind)? In point of fact, the default attitude here should be that the Iranians—like the E3/EU+3—will respect the JCPOA. Honestly, why shouldn’t they?

But if Marco Rubio or one of his GOP compères enters the White House in January 2017 and proceeds to denounce US commitments to the JCPOA, which country will the international community conclude cannot be trusted to respect agreements it has signed?

On the US isolating itself if it rejects or repudiates the Iran deal, Iranian-American writer Hooman Majd, in a NYT op-ed dated August 17th, “Iranians dare to hope,” concludes with this

But the deal isn’t about the United States anymore. If Iran abides by it (even as America rejects it) the rest of the world will too, and the United States will have killed not the deal but its own credibility, the tremendous goodwill it has in Iran, and even its own economic interests. And Iran, the Iranians know, will abide by the treaty, make do in a world without America, and will re-elect, in 2017, the president who brought them the promise of a better life.

Back to Rubio:

 I would argue that it is not, because you’re about to see billions of dollars of assets held abroad returned. That money can’t be pulled back. Once [the Iranians] get it they’ll be able to do what they want with it. I mean, it isn’t going to be used to build hospitals and roads.

How the hell does Marco Rubio know this?! How does he know that the billions of Iranian dollars will not be used for infrastructure and other things that will benefit the Iranian people (and increase the popularity of the regime in the process)?!

In fact, he doesn’t know at all. He’s just idly speculating. Le café de commerce.

I imagine they’ll spend some on domestic considerations, but if history is a guide, they’ll use the money to increase their reach in the region, and that means supporting [Syrian President] Assad, Hezbollah, the 14th of February movement in Bahrain, the Houthis in Yemen, you name it. There are Shia militias in Iraq they will support, and this is not to mention their long-range missile capabilities and their other asymmetrical conventional capabilities that they’ll work on.

First of all, history is no guide here. And I will wager that Marco Rubio, were he to take an exam of mine on this history (without having taken my course, at least), would not get an ‘A’. Second, precisely how will Iran “use the money” to support its clients in the region? Regarding the Assad regime in Syria and Hizbullah, they’re already being backed by Iran to the hilt. According to Israeli intelligence, Hizbullah already has over 100,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel, all presumably supplied by Iran. So would more money for that many more rockets and missiles increase ever more the danger to Israel? On the “14th of February movement [sic]” in Bahrain: Why shouldn’t this receive more money? It could no doubt use some. And there is no reason under the sun why anyone with an interest in democracy promotion in the region should be opposed. The Houthis in Yemen? So what about them? In point of fact, the US has no dog in the Yemeni civil war and, par ailleurs, has no reason whatever to be opposing the Houthis. If anything, the US should be tilting toward the Houthis, who are fighting Al-Qaida in Yemen and, as Zaidis, will be reliable enemies of the Islamic State should the latter set up shop in the Arabian peninsula (an eventuality that must not be excluded). Shia militias in Iraq? I’m sorry to inform you, Senator Rubio, but that horse has already bolted. Shia Iraq is entirely occupied by Shia militias and which are, let us be clear on this, an essential bulwark against the expansion of the Islamic State. Long range Iranian missiles? Ouf! GMAB.

The view in the region is that Iran is a country bent on regional domination. They believe the ayatollah’s call to be a leader of all the Muslim world, not just Shia Muslims, and they have a view that Iran has a rightful place in the world as a dominant power.

The only people outside US right-wing circles who believe this preposterous, ridiculous notion are the ruling cliques in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, who have an existential hang-up about Persians and Shi’ism. That’s their problem, not America’s.

And so Sunni Arabs see all this as a direct threat, and they view Iran as being empowered now. They are now the power in the region that has been given global-power status.

Oy vey, Iran being “given global-power status”… This one takes the cake. Now we’re in La La Land. The notion of Iran endowed with global-power status—and of this being delivered to it on a platter by the JCPOA—is utterly unserious; it is so unworthy of serious response that it will not receive it here (if one does want a response to Rubio’s ludicrous assertion, see Daniel Larison’s takedown in TAC).

As for Sunni Arabs—but which ones outside ruling Saudi/Gulfi circles precisely?—who see Iran as a threat (existential), let them deal with that. The Saudis (and Gulfis et al) will look after their interests, and the United States of America will look after hers…

and if we would just mind our own business, this theory goes [i.e. that a lot of our problems in the region were caused by us being too engaged, because we were telling people what to do]—and in particular force the Israelis to work out a deal with the Palestinians—that somehow the region would become more stable. And so you married that belief to fatigue, and that leads to this foreign policy we now see. What happened since is you’ve seen the fatigue go away as ISIS began beheading people, and you’ve seen the implications of this retreat from the region, which is that it leaves behind a vacuum, a vacuum that has led to chaos. It’s led to chaos in Iraq, it’s increasingly leading to chaos in Afghanistan. ISIS is now fighting with the Taliban to become the premier Islamist group on the ground. You’ve seen the chaos in Libya. You’ve seen the chaos spreading to other parts of North Africa as well. And so you’re seeing the results of that play itself out in chaos, but ultimately they’re forcing this president back into the region.

This is gobbledygook. Hot air. MENA is in chaos. We know that. Who doesn’t? But what specifically does this have to do with the actions, or non-actions, of the US? Except if one wants to argue—and not without reason—that the 2003 US invasion of Iraq set off a chain reaction of events in the region that led to the current situation, though one doubts this is what Rubio is getting at.

[Obama was] the guy who was going to get us out of these conflicts, but now he has been pulled back in, and he’s trying to do it in the most limited way possible.

A historical mise au point is in order here. President Obama pledged during the 2008 campaign to withdraw US forces from Iraq. But, in fact, this became a done deal in the final weeks of Bush’s presidency, when the US and Iraq signed a SOFA stipulating that all US forces in Iraq would be withdrawn by the end of 2011. Obama, during the 2011 negotiations for a renewed SOFA, strove to keep a residual US military presence but the Iraqi parliament would not agree to this, as the US was insisting that US military personnel not be liable for prosecution in Iraqi courts, and to which the democratically elected Iraqi parliament responded with a categorical ‘no’. And so that was that. The US had no choice but to quit Iraq at the end of 2011. If Marco Rubio or anyone who shares his world-view on foreign policy wishes to disagree on this, I invite him or her to explicitly state what the US president should have done in this circumstance.

And then there’s Afghanistan, which is curiously absent from present-day GOP discourse. Republicans like to extol Bush’s Iraq surge of 2007—which sent US troop numbers there from 130K to 160K—but neglect to mention Obama’s Afghan surge of 2009-10, when US troop levels more than tripled, from 32K to 100K. Not that this made a huge difference in the end but still, it did not precisely signify a wish on Obama’s part “to get us out of these conflicts.”

But this is ending up making it worse, not better, because what’s happening now in Iraq is people are looking at these limited air strikes and saying, “This is not American power. We know what American power really looks like, and this isn’t it.” This is a cosmetic show of force that ultimately shows you’re not truly committed to defeating these people, and this has undermined our credibility with Jordan, with the Saudis, with the Egyptians, with others.

Immediate question: how on earth does Marco Rubio know what “people” in Iraq are saying in regard to US air strikes? More to the point: What precisely does he think the US should be doing to defeat “these people”—presumably the Islamic State—in Iraq and Syria? And how does he propose to display “American power [as it] really looks like”? Send American troops back to Iraq? If so, how many, knowing that taking on IS will be a somewhat greater challenge than the 2003 cakewalk to Baghdad?

In a Ricochet post a couple of months ago, Claire, in taking the Obama administration to task for what she called its “non-strategy” vis-à-vis the Islamic State, expressed puzzlement at the relative silence of “our-too-calm” Republican candidates. Claire was miffed as to why the latter weren’t “screaming” over the latest outrage committed by IS. In fact, the answer is simple: If the GOP candidates are going to scream bloody murder about IS, they will necessarily have to say what they would do about it if they were to succeed President Obama. And the fact is, they have no idea. They haven’t a clue. (On the GOP’s Middle East/foreign policy cluelessness, see David Sanger’s NYT article from the other day). More air power will not do the job and sending 10,000 US troops to Iraq—as Lindsey Graham has proposed—won’t either. If the US wishes to eradicate the Islamic State—which, horrible as it is, poses no threat to the American homeland—it will take an armada larger than the one in 2003 and that will stay in Iraq and Syria for many years (and under what mandate?). The Republicans may be crazy warmongers—in their rhetoric, at least—but none of their candidates are so crazy—or at least imprudent—as to propose such a thing.

There is actually one Republican candidate who has made sensible statements of late on the Middle East, and that’s the current front-runner. As Bloomberg Politics writer Melinda Henneberger reported from the campaign trail in New Hampshire last weekend

[Donald Trump] called himself the “most militaristic person in the room,” then added, “but you have to know when to use it.” And he also says not only that we should never have gone into Iraq, but that we were better off with Saddam Hussein in charge there. “You had Iran and Iraq and they were the same; they were twins…Well, we took one out and look at the mess we have; we destabilized the Middle East. I’m not a fan of Saddam Hussein, but he ran the place, and he had no weapons of mass destruction. And now, instead of Saddam Hussein, we have far more brutal.” No, this is not an unheard-of view, but it is one that has generally been heard only from Democrats. Yet when the Republican front-runner says these things now—that we have nothing whatsoever to show for all the blood spilled there—many heads nod.

Not bad. What Donald Trump had to say in NH was certainly more level-headed than Marco Rubio’s brandishing the spectre, sans rire, of Iranian nuclear mushroom clouds over California in a speech there last month. Haven’t Republicans learned their lesson by now about conjuring up mushroom clouds to scare people?

Rubio is at least lucid about one thing, which is the likely outcome of the congressional vote on the Iran deal. Congress will certainly reject it but will not have the votes to override President Obama’s veto. There is no way 13 Democrats in the Senate plus 44 in the House will go against their president. Jamais de la vie. So the Iran deal will be a done one once and for all. And the Republicans will have to find another foreign policy issue to demagogue and talk nonsense on.

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Abbas Milani and Michael McFaul, both of Stanford University, have a must-read piece in The Atlantic on “What the Iran-deal debate is like in Iran.” In short, Iranian democrats—i.e. those Iranians who oppose the regime and seek a normal relationship with the West—are for the deal. None are opposed (not in Iran, at least). Obviously. Why would they be?

If one hasn’t seen it, check out the reportage from Iran by The Forward’s Larry Cohler-Esses, “A Jewish Journalist’s Exclusive Look Inside Iran.” Money quote (one among others)

During the course of my conversations with several senior ayatollahs and prominent political and government officials, it became clear that there is high-placed dissent to the official line against Israel. No one had anything warm to say about the Jewish state. But pressed as to whether it was Israel’s policies or its very existence to which they objected, several were adamant: It’s Israel’s policies. Others, notwithstanding their ideological objection to a Jewish state, made it clear they would accept a two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians if the Palestinians were to negotiate one and approve it in a referendum.

Ordinary Iranians with whom I spoke have no interest at all in attacking Israel; their concern is with their own sense of isolation and economic struggle. (…)

Charles Schumer & Co., take note.

If one is seeking a glimpse of Iranian society today—urban society, in Tehran—make sure to see the great Jafar Panahi’s latest film, Taxi, which won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale. As one knows, Panahi was, in 2010, forbidden by a Tehran kangaroo court from making movies for twenty years and leaving Iran, though he continues to surreptitiously make movies anyway. I saw his This Is Not a Film—which I called, in my ‘Best (and worst) movies of 2011’ list, the “Saddest home movie from Iran depicting the judicial persecution of a great filmmaker”—though didn’t the more recent Closed Curtain, which, for some reason, hasn’t come to France. The latest one opened here in April and to rapturous reviews (Hollywood press reviews were likewise). Audience reaction was also stellar and with the film a box office success: 580,000 tickets sold in France, which is exceptional for a film of this kind, i.e. a film from Iran and in which not much happens. It’s just Panahi playing taxi driver, picking up passengers—from a cross-section of Tehran society—and conversing with them. It’s all staged, of course—the persons one sees are actors, professional or amateur—though with the ending, when the VAJA—or whatever branch of the security services they are—catches up with him, not being staged at all. As I asserted in my last Iran post, Iran has a vocation to be friends with the US and Europe. Not the VAJA or other regime goons but the Iranian people. How can one not think that after seeing Panahi’s movie?

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Following up on my Iran nuclear deal post earlier this week, here’s a documentary that I recommend to anyone who has a serious interest in Iran and with strong convictions on the political situation there (the two usually going together). The documentary is the fruit of an original idea of the director, Mehran Tamadon—who left Iran for France in 1984, at age 12, with his communist parents, returning to live there for a few years in the early ’00s—which was to invite a group of mullahs to a private home near Tehran, where they would all discuss religion, laïcité, the place of secular Iranians in the Islamic Republic, and what common ground, if any, they could find to peacefully coexist in the same polity. “Le vivre ensemble,” as we say here. It took three years for him to find willing participants in his scheme—who would agree to be filmed—but he eventually did. So it was one atheist democrat vs. four pro-system mullahs in a friendly clash of ideas over a full weekend (with sumptuous meals prepared by their wives, who did not partake in the discussions, needless to say).

The film passed under my radar screen when it opened last December but this Le Monde article in February, on the interest the film had sparked in the discerning, intellectually highbrow cinephile milieu in the Paris area, aroused mine, so I went to see it at a Saturday morning screening in March and with the director present. It’s an engaging film, reminding me somewhat of discussions I had with Islamists in Algeria in the late ’80s-early ’90s: a dialogue of the deaf—though the dialogue in the film, between persons of the same culture and polity, and speaking in their native language, is far deeper than any I ever had. But while there is no meeting of the minds between Tamadon and the mullahs, the dialogue is civil and with the head mullah of the group—and biggest talker—displaying a sense of humor and bonhomie. Everyone seemed to have a good time and find the exercise useful. One does not imagine such a dialogue could possibly happen in Saudi Arabia or in Egypt these days, or just about anywhere in the Sunni Arab world. I certainly can’t imagine it in Algeria at any point over the past three decades (of a Pagsiste or pro-RCD intello engaging pro-FIS imams in dialogue over 48 hours in close quarters). Take a look at this two-minute Euronews report on the film, plus this three-minute excerpt (French s/t) of Tamadon and the mullahs debating laïcité. And see this review of the film in Qantara.de by writer Igal Avidan, who saw it at the 2014 Berlinale.

On the Iran deal, Robin Wright has an article in The New Yorker (July 30th), “‘Death to America!’ and the Iran deal.” The lede: “Iranians seemed befuddled about why the inflammatory mantra of the Islamic Revolution would ever impact the fate of the nuclear deal.” That’s right. It’s been clear since even the hostage crisis of 1979-80 that the mobs chanting “Death to America” in front of the US embassy were trucked in by the regime to perform for US television news. It’s theater.

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The ministers of foreign affairs of France, Germany, the European Union, Iran, the United Kingdom and the United States as well as Chinese and Russian diplomats announcing an Iran nuclear deal framework in Lausanne on 2 April

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]

I should have had this post up at least ten days ago but Greece and other things (e.g. work) got in the way. I’m not sure I have anything original to say about the Iran deal—a.k.a. the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—as, to paraphrase my friend Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, just about everything has already been said on the deal and will continue to be said over and over again. I was naturally happy when the deal was announced and think it’s a good one. Not that I possess the expertise to evaluate the technical details, as arms control agreements—and nuclear weapons in general—have never been my thing. So like most people out there, I’ve been depending on the assessments of specialists (arms control or Iran) who have followed the dossier closely and whose sensibilities on the issue I trust, e.g. Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey professor Avner Cohen—author of the leading academic works on Israel and nuclear weapons—who had an op-ed in Haaretz arguing that the JCPOA is a good deal (and particularly for Israel; which is likewise the view of members of the Israeli security establishment), and Georgetown University political science MENA specialist and friend Daniel Brumberg, who, in a Washington Examiner op-ed, asserted that failure in Vienna was not an option (for any of the parties to the negotiations). As for nuclear weapons/non-proliferation experts, e.g. Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Aaron Stein of the Royal United Services Institute, they “love the Iran deal,” say “it’s a damn good deal,” and quite simply have a “very positive” assessment of the deal. One may also take a look at the forum in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in which “top international security experts with a variety of perspectives and backgrounds [were asked] to offer their [instant] assessments of the [deal]” on the day it was announced (note in particular the contributions by Oliver Meier, Chuck Freilich, Sharon Squassoni, Lawrence Korb and Katherine Blakeley, Kingston Reif, Siegfried S. Hecker, and Ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian). On the technical side of the issue, all this is good enough for me.

As for the opponents of the deal—US Republicans, the Israelis, US Democrats who unconditionally support Israel (who will side with Bibi Netanyahu, the leader of a foreign state, against their own president and from their own party), and Gulf Arab regimes—they were clearly going to be against anything that could have possibly been negotiated at Vienna, as they don’t want a deal with Iran, period (the flagrant proof: prominent Republican senators rushed to denounce the deal before they had even seen it). They want war with Iran but, as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias correctly observed, cannot publicly admit that. Yglesias, in engaging a Commentary magazine pundit in debate, delved into their arguments—notably those of Elliot Abrams and Ron Dermer, which were recommended by the pundit—against the JCPOA, after which Yglesias concluded that “they’re utter nonsense.” One argument I read was a WSJ editorial which, in lambasting “Obama’s false Iran choice,” argued that a third option—between the JCPOA and war—could have been put on the table by the US, something the WSJ editorial writer called “coercive diplomacy.” As if the US, in taking an intransigent hard-line with the Iranians and making demands that the latter would never accept, could have dragooned along the rest of its E3+3 partners, and notably the Russians and Chinese, in a posture that would have resulted in certain failure in Vienna (it was and is striking how the American right and other neocons have seemed to view Vienna as a bilateral negotiation between the US and Iran, forgetting—or simply dismissing the fact—that there were other major powers at the table and with whom the Americans had to coordinate a consensus position). The Times of Israel founding editor David Horovitz wrote an op-ed in much the same vein as the WSJ’s, “No, we don’t want war, and yes, there was a better deal.” This passage said it all

A country led by a regime that secretly pursued nuclear weapons, that fosters unrest across the region, that calls for the elimination of Israel, that finances, arms and trains terrorist armies in Lebanon and Gaza, that orchestrates terrorism worldwide, that works to bring Europe and North America into the range of its missiles, that criminalizes homosexuality, that discriminates against women, that jails, tortures and executes political opponents, that executes more juvenile offenders than any other country on earth… that Iran must not be allowed to become a more dominant regional power.

N.B. When it comes to mistreating political dissidents, women, homosexuals, and juvenile delinquents, in financing terrorism (i.e. groups Israel is in conflict with) and engaging in other such disreputable behavior, Iran is hardly the worst offender in the region, let alone the world (and if I were a woman, gay, dissident of any sort, or even a Jew, I would rather find myself in Iran than in Saudi Arabia—and definitely if I were a Jew!). And in any case, none of these things have anything to do with an arms control agreement. And the Vienna negotiations were about arms control, tout court.

And then there’s Michael Oren, Israel’s ex-ambassador to Washington, who wrote in Politico on “What a good Iran deal would look like.” In his view, such would have involved “intensified” US sanctions—and with foreign companies violating these barred from doing business in the US—and a “credible military threat.” In other words, by being “tough”—an American right-wing fetish word—and rattling the sabres, the US would have caused the Iranians to cry uncle, all while intimidating the US’s E3+3 partners, via the threat of economic retaliation (one smiles at the image of Washington snapping its fingers at Beijing here; China, pour mémoire, being Iran’s largest trading partner and by far, e.g. here and here), into falling in line behind the tough US position.

Sure. As any level-headed person could inform Ambassador Oren, his “good Iran deal” is a fantasy, as none of the things he advocates could or would possibly happen. And now with UNSCR 2231, cannot legally happen (sorry, Ambassador Oren, but your “good Iran deal” has been superseded by events). In point of fact, what Horovitz, Oren, and other Israeli and pro-Israel opponents of the JCPOA cannot abide is Iran’s stature as a regional power. To repeat: the Israelis and their unconditional US allies simply do not want a nuclear deal, as this will necessarily reinforce Iran’s regional position. Robert Farley—Associate Professor at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce—thus put it in a post on the Lawyers, Guns & Money blog

No conceivable deal could achieve what [Michael] Oren declares that he wants, but of course the point is that he doesn’t want a deal. He, and other hawks, want the constant threat of US military action, in order to reassure our allies that we will always be prepared to bomb their enemies. There is no conceivable set of nuclear concessions that could make Michael Oren (or [Michael] Doran, or [Matthew] Kroenig, or [Eli] Lake, or [William] Kristol, or [Tom] Cotton, et al ad nauseum) pleased with this deal, because they want military confrontation based on other Iranian foreign policy behaviors.

And those “other” foreign policy behaviors are things that have nothing to do with anything that could have been put on the table at Vienna.

Peter Beinart, writing in The Atlantic, got it exactly right as to “Why the Iran deal makes Obama’s critics so angry.” Money quote

[The Iran deal] codifies the limits of American power. And recognizing the limits of American power also means recognizing the limits of American exceptionalism. It means recognizing that no matter how deeply Americans believe in their country’s unique virtue, the United States is subject to the same restraints that have governed great powers in the past. For the Republican right, that’s a deeply unwelcome realization. For many other Americans, it’s a relief. It’s a sign that, finally, the Bush era in American foreign policy is over.

It should be said that not all commentators on the right side of the political spectrum have denounced the JCPOA. E.g. foreign policy and MENA specialist Adam Garfinkle, who has worked for successive Republican administrations, has a not uninteresting essay—albeit complicated, verbose, and overly long: a Garfinkle trademark—in The American Interest (of which he is editor) on the day the deal was announced. Which is not to say that I’m on the same page with him across the board, e.g. his argument that the deal, which consecrates Iran’s status as an almost nuclear threshold state, will no doubt cause other regional actors—Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE—to develop or purchase nuclear weapons, thereby “making a nuclear war in the region, perhaps involving the United States and perhaps not, more likely, after approximately 15 years.” Mr. Garfinkle should know better than to be making predictions about what will or will not happen a decade down the road, let alone longer (and Abu Dhabi going nuclear? Or any of the other places Garfinkle mentions? Oy vey, GMAB!).

In fact, the best rubbishing of the arguments of opponents of the Iran deal has come from one of their (more or less) ideological kindred spirits, the paleocon Patrick Buchanan, who, writing in The American Conservative, incisively informed his erstwhile political soul mates that “Rejecting the Iran deal would be GOP suicide.” Buchanan is very good here. His TAC has indeed had a number of fine commentaries on the deal, e.g. TAC founding editor Scott McConnell on “How the Iran deal serves America” and the almost daily posts by TAC senior editor Daniel Larison, who has been taking particular aim at the reactions to the deal by GOP presidential candidates, e.g. Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Rand Paul, plus Mitt Romney; Larison’s subtext: on the subject of Iran—and foreign policy more generally—the Republicans are both crazy and don’t WTF they’re talking about.

One matter needs to be put to rest, which is the hostility of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states to the deal, indeed to any deal with Iran. As the NYT reported ten days ago based on WikiLeaks revelations, Saudi Arabia has “an obsession with Iran” and which is driven by the Sunni-Shia divide. That is to say, the Saudi hang-up over Iran is existential. It is religious in nature. Which means that it is permanent and timeless. Let us be clear about a couple of things here. First, the United States of America has nothing whatever to do with—and must absolutely not allow itself to get caught up in—the existential angst of the fucking Saudis in regard to Shi’ism. This is not America’s problem. Second, Saudi Arabia is not a friend of the United States, nor is it an ally. Saudi Arabia is a state with which the US has an important relationship but which is based exclusively on realpolitik, i.e. on raisons d’État. America has important interests in Saudi Arabia—economic, strategic—but there is no political or cultural affinity whatever between the two countries. And there never will be, as the problem with Saudi Arabia goes well beyond the nature of its political system. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is a major source of what ails the Muslim world today—and a big source of a lot of the problems in that Muslim world. Saudi Arabia is, as I have labeled it, the Evil Kingdom. And let’s not forget the role of Saudis in 9/11—and which no doubt went well beyond the 15 of the 19 men who commandeered the four airplanes that day. So: the US, in the pursuit of its national interests, must not humor or indulge the existential fears of its interlocutors in Riyadh (or Abu Dhabi, Doha, Manama, or Kuwait).

On the Iran deal, I have been particularly interested in the reaction of the E3+3 member that took a particularly hard line against the Iranians during the long negotiating process, which was, of course, France. French policy has been consistently distrustful of the regime in Tehran, and during the Sarkozy and Hollande years both. Now there is a tenacious notion out there among Anglo-Americans who opine on the question that French foreign policy is driven primarily by base commercial considerations, of winning contracts for big French corporations (in the case of Iran, see, e.g., here). Insofar as any principles may be involved, they’re mainly about France trying to cling to the fading glory of its past as a colonial empire. This is, of course, Anglo-Saxon poppycock, and particularly in the case of Iran and its nuclear ambitions, over which the French took, as one knows, a harder line than the US and which has been explicated, entre autres, in recent Foreign Policy articles by Colin Lynch and Yochi Dreazen, and Joseph Bahout and Benjamin Haddad—and with the latter emphasizing the deep knowledge of Iran in the French foreign policy, intelligence, and defense establishments (and which is certainly greater than that of the US).

For the anecdote, some 2½ weeks ago I participated in a forum in Paris with major American politicians at the state level—and they were there from almost all 50 states plus Puerto Rico—along with corporate types, that was organized by a New York-based nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. The speaker who preceded me (my topic was immigration in France) was Jean-David Levitte, who spoke to the (exclusively American) audience about geopolitics. As Levitte has been a top person in the French foreign policy establishment over the years—and particularly during Sarkozy’s presidency—I took the opportunity to ask him a question about French policy toward Iran and why France has taken an even harder line than the US. His lengthy answer focused on nuclear non-proliferation as a cornerstone of French policy in the Middle East—as primordial for the French national interest—and, in regard to the negotiations in Vienna, of the need to, as he put it, “get it right,” i.e. to arrive at an agreement that would stop Iran’s nuclear capacity short of the threshold that would provoke its neighbors into trying to acquire that same capacity (he was speaking five days before the JCPOA was announced). At the forum the following day, two of France’s top academic MENA specialists—both quite brilliant and for whom I have the utmost regard—spoke on the region to the audience of Americans. Somewhat to my surprise, both gentlemen expressed deep reservations over an eventual Iran deal. One of them, who is a former diplomat and with personal experience in dealing with the Iranians in an official capacity, emphasized the nefarious role Iran has played in the region (notably in Syria) and evoked Iran’s long history as a sponsor of international terrorism (and with France and Frenchmen having been a target, particularly in the 1980s). The other specialist assured the audience that a deal with Iran that enshrined its status as a nuclear threshold state and ended the sanctions regime and diplomatic quarantine—thereby augmenting Iran’s status as a regional power—would frighten masses of Sunni Arabs into the arms of the Islamic State. No less.

Now I don’t share the views of my esteemed colleagues on this question but found them interesting, as they so closely hued to the official French position. So the fact that the French were fully on board with the JCPOA was, in my book, prima facie proof that the deal was a good one. On this, here is the reaction of François Nicoullaud, a former French ambassador to Tehran and nuclear weapons specialist, speaking to Libération on the day the deal was announced

C’est un bel accord qui doit convenir à toutes les parties et répond en particulier à tout ce que souhaitaient les Américains, dont 80% à 90% des demandes se voient satisfaites (…). Je ne crois pas que l’on aurait pu obtenir mieux. C’est le triomphe de la volonté et de la persévérance, en particulier de John Kerry (…) qui a déployé une énergie extraordinaire, de Hassan Rohani qui a su attendre son heure pendant dix ans [il était déjà le chef des négociateurs iraniens, en 2003-2004] et de Barack Obama qui avait tendu la main à Téhéran après son élection, en 2008.

See as well Nicoullaud’s “Premières leçons de l’accord nucléaire avec l’Iran,” on the Boulevard Extérieur blog. In the days following the accord, I checked out the Twitter accounts of two leading French geopolitical analysts, both Atlanticist in orientation (i.e. not out on the left or the souverainiste and/or Russia-friendly right) and exceptionally smart, to see their reaction. One, François Heisbourg, called the JCPOA and UNSCR 2231 “a remarkable achievement,” though emphasized that the deal was not likely to modify Iran’s policy in the region (see this graphic that Heisbourg retweeted, which suggests that France succeeded in Vienna in pulling the US toward its tougher position). The other, Bruno Tertrais—whose position on Iran was close to that of US neocons—tweeted an op-ed by Ariel (Eli) Levite, who was the principal deputy director general for policy at the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission from 2002 to 2007, “The good, the bad and the ugly nuclear agreement,” published in Haaretz and on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace website, and with this comment: “In the maelström of reactions emerges a really thoughtful piece”…

The official French commentary on the Iran deal came from foreign minister Laurent Fabius in an interview in Le Monde, which was translated into English by the Worldcrunch website and linked to by my friend Claire Berlinski, in her Ricochet blog post on “France and the Iranian nuclear deal.”

In Claire’s post there is one little line that caused me to leap out of my chair and to which I must respond. Claire says that “France is objectively the weakest of the P5+1.” Weaker than the United Kingdom? In what respect? Military spending? On this score, France and the UK rank 5th and 6th in the world, with France higher in one ranking (SIPRI) and the UK higher in another (IISS). But the two are essentially at parity here and with comparable ability to project military force to faraway places, and which has been the case for decades. As for economic strength, France and the UK, in nominal GDP, are also ranked 5th and 6th worldwide, with France having consistently been ahead of the UK over the years but with the UK now slightly so in some rankings (mainly on account of fluctuations in the € and £ exchange rates). But again, the two countries are essentially at parity (though in country rankings of GDP at PPP, France is ahead of the UK in all). And when it comes to military strength, France is, of course, well ahead of Germany, and with the French economy being considerably stronger than Russia’s.

One thing about the Iran deal, and which seems obvious, is that, in addition to controlling Iran’s nuclear capacity, it involves a gamble on Obama’s part that the deal will influence the political dynamic in Iran and push the country in a more moderate direction, both internally and in its foreign policy choices. This will, of course, not happen right away—certainly not as long as the Ayatollah Khamenei is Supreme Leader, and Iranian regional behavior may even worsen in the immediate period—but the gamble clearly needs to be made, as, in view of the chaos in the region—of collapse and fragmentation of the core Arab states and emergence of the Islamic State—America and Europe need—or need to hope for—a stable, prosperous Iran, which has ceased financing terrorist groups (e.g. Islamic Jihad), arming non-state actors to the hilt (e.g. Hizbullah), and supporting criminal regimes (e.g. the Syrian Ba’athist), and with which America and Europe can cooperate. E.g. it is hard to see how any kind of solution can be found in Syria—if such is possible (and which I doubt)—without Iran on board. And Iran is clearly a bulwark against the advance of the Islamic State, which, ça va de soi, presents a grave threat to the region and anywhere significant numbers of Muslims are to be found.

Assertion: America and Iran have a vocation to be friends. As one knows well by now, the problem in Iran is the regime and political system, but which are seriously contested within the country and by forces in Iranian society that look favorably to America and Europe. And Iran has a vibrant, sophisticated civil society and with currents far more liberal than anything to be found in the Arab world. As for what the US can do to influence Iran internally, Adam Garfinkle, in his essay linked to above, has this to say

[I]f sanctions relief is to come, it is probably in U.S. interest to rush as much of the roughly $150 billion involved into the Iranian economy as fast as possible. It is likewise in our interest to open the economy to all manner of foreigners as quickly as possible: sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll to the max. If we want to weaken the regime—and its emetic IRGC/Qods Brigade Praetorian guard—we should do our best to serve up maximum feasible Schumpeterean “creative destruction”, the same stuff that KO’ed the Shah. The more social change we help unleash, and generate from a new baseline, the more the inability of the current Iranian regime to adjust will doom it to oblivion.

The regime fears its own people and is doubtless prepared now to crack down hard, lest melting glaciers of pent-up frustration get out of hand. How this will play out is hard to say; it may hurt Rouhani more than help him. In any event, we need to do what we can to undermine or overwhelm the crackdown, and being a little (or a lot) more voluble on Iranian human rights violations—which are massive and ongoing—is not a bad way to go about that given the limited means at our disposal to influence internal Iranian social trends.

In a similar vein, Paul Berman, whom I normally do not link to favorably, had a hopeful commentary in Tablet on “Why President Obama’s deal is not just an act of faith, but a call to arms—of the liberal sort.” Also in Tablet is a must-read article by Samuel Thorpe, a Jerusalem-based writer and translator of Persian, on Tehran University political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam, “The most dangerous man in Iran.” It begins

This past March Tehran University political science professor Sadegh Zibakalam said the unspeakable. In a wide-ranging foreign-policy debate with conservative journalist Seyed Yasser Jebraily at Islamic Azad University of Mashhad, videos of which have circulated widely on the Internet, Zibakalam blasted the Iranian government’s oft-stated goal of destroying Israel.

Sitting with Jebraily at a small, microphone-studded table, Zibakalam, dressed in an open-collared shirt and dark blue sports coat over his trademark suspenders, first argued that conservatives’ anti-American rhetoric was harming Iran’s national interest. Then he turned to Israel, saying that cries of “Death to Israel” do the same.

“Who gave the Islamic Republic of Iran the duty of destroying Israel?” he asked sarcastically to the audience’s thunderous applause. “Did the Iranian people have a referendum and say they want to destroy Israel? Did the parliament pass a law saying that we should destroy Israel?”

When hard-line hecklers tried to interrupt they were quickly shouted down by the crowd. “Twenty-four hours a day you have the radio, the television, Kayhan newspaper, the parliament, the Friday sermons,” Zibakalam boldly replied. “We have two hours here—one for me and one for Jebraily. You are so authoritarian and dictatorial that you disrupt even this.”

Watch the YouTube embedded in the article of Zibakalam pronouncing the above words and note the audience reaction. One would never see such a spectacle anywhere in the Arab world (or in Turkey, or any other Muslim majority country).

See also Zibakalam’s “Letter from Tehran” in Politico from last March (linked to in the Tablet piece), “Why Iran’s hardliners fear a deal: A nuclear pact means our regime will have to surrender its No. 1 justification for its actions: anti-Americanism.”

On the question of regime opponents—of which Zibakalam is one—and what they think, see the In These Times piece by Iran specialist Danny Postel of the University of Denver, “Iranian dissidents explain why they support the nuclear deal.” They support it to a man and woman. Of course they do. Why wouldn’t they? One would think that US opponents of the deal would be minimally interested in the views of the pro-democracy, anti-Ayatollah camp in Iran. On this, TAC’s Daniel Larison has a post, “The nuclear deal and Iranian dissidents,” in which he took apart a particularly stupid comment by the reactionary pundit Victor Davis Hanson—and with Larison concluding that the likes of VDH couldn’t care less about the Iranian opposition (reading the bit by VDH that Larison quotes, one is struck—yet again—by the alternate reality in which VDH inhabits, along with most others of his ideological ilk).

The leitmotif on the Iran deal at the moment—in the US at least—is that it has to get through Congress, which is sure to reject it, though most likely will not garner the two-thirds majority needed to override President Obama’s certain veto. If the Congress does override, however, it is being said that the deal will thus be dead, i.e. the Congress will have killed it. But will this be the case? I’ve read the relevant sections of the JCPOA and UNSCR 2231, which, unless I missed something or misunderstood what I was reading—which can happen—do not stipulate that legislative action against the JCPOA in one of the signatory states would result in the nullification of the accord. In other words, UNSCR 2231 will come into effect after ninety days—on October 20th—regardless of what the US Congress does. UN (and EU) sanctions will be lifted and if Iran scrupulously adheres to the terms of the JCPOA, the latter will be implemented, albeit without the United States. The rest of the world will trade with and invest in Iran as the JCPOA allows, and without the US being able to do a thing about it. If I am mistaken on this, please correct me.

UPDATE: Tablet magazine has a useful “Guide for the perplexed: The Iran nuclear agreement” by Thomas R. Pickering, former under secretary of state in the Clinton administration and ambassador to the United Nations, Russia, Israel, and several other countries. Pickering, in short, “defends the most complex and important treaty this century.” See his link in the article to James Walsh of MIT’s “excellent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 25, 2015.”

2nd UPDATE: Here are two smart reflections on the Iran deal I’ve come across in the past two days: Paul Pillar, “The sources of opposition to the Iran agreement,” in The National Interest; and James Fallows, “The real test of the Iran deal,” in The Atlantic.

3rd UPDATE: Suzanne Nossel writes in Foreign Policy on “What will happen if Congress blows up the Iran nuclear deal.” And Peter Beinart, writing in The Atlantic, rhetorically asks about “The big hole in the Iran debate,” observing that “[i]n most televised discussions of Iran, the word ‘Iraq’ never comes up, and that’s insane.”

4th UPDATE: Slate’s William Saletan, writing on the Senate testimony of John Kerry and energy secretary Ernest Monitz on the Iran deal, asserts that the GOP is “Not fit to lead.” The lede: “The Iran hearings have shown how the Republican Party can no longer be trusted with the presidency.” Read Saletan’s piece. To call the Republicans appalling is almost an understatement.

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Pro-Mosaddegh demonstration, Tehran, March 2 1953

Pro-Mosaddegh demonstration, Tehran, March 2 1953

This post—which I intended to do several months ago but didn’t get around to—has nothing to do with anything that’s happening right now. I am posting it at the present time as part of a social media exchange I’ve been having this past week with a friend, who expressed astonishment at an assertion I made that the CIA did not engineer the coup d’états in Chile or in Iran in 1953. On the Chile coup, I offered my friend my post of last September, Chile’s 9/11: What really happened?, in which I linked to an article in Foreign Affairs by a CIA officer in Santiago at the time, who explained—convincingly, in my view—that the CIA was not implicated in what happened there on that fateful September 11th 1973. My friend, who’s Algerian, remains skeptical, which doesn’t surprise me: Western leftists over a certain age and tiersmondistes the world over are almost politically hardwired to believe that the CIA was responsible for the Chilean coup. It goes without saying. And if people have believed something dur comme fer for over four decades, they’re not likely to change their minds after reading a single article, and by a CIA agent at that.

It’s likewise with the 1953 Iranian coup that overthrew Mohammed Mosaddegh, perhaps even more so, as Kermit Roosevelt—the CIA’s man in Tehran at the time—practically bragged about the role he played in the coup, serious scholars and journalists (e.g. Stephen Kinzer, Ervand Abrahamian) have written books on it, and the US government has acknowledged its involvement. I accepted this narrative pretty much without question—there was no reason not to—until I read an article in the December 8th 2009 TNR by Stanford University’s Abbas Milani, “The Great Satan Myth,” in which he argued that the circumstances surrounding the coup against Mosaddegh were much more complex than the dominant version had it. Milani followed up the TNR piece with one on The National Interest website, dated January 24th 2011, “The Myth of Operation Ajax: America can’t form a prudent policy toward Iran until it exorcises the ghost of Washington’s role in bringing down Mossadegh.” Involvement is one thing, responsibility is another.

Then in the July-August 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs, Washington-based Iran specialist Ray Takeyh had an article—in the same series as the one on Chile discussed in my above-cited post—entitled “What Really Happened in Iran: The CIA, the Ouster of Mosaddeq, and the Restoration of the Shah.” Takeyh’s argument—that the CIA role in the 1953 coup was “ultimately insignificant” and that Mosaddegh would have been overthrown regardless of outside meddling—settles the matter for me. For those too lazy to click on the above link, here’s the text of the article. À chacun de décider ce qu’il en pense.

By Ray Takeyh

Back in 2009, during his heavily promoted Cairo speech on American relations with the Muslim world, U.S. President Barack Obama noted, in passing, that “in the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.” Obama was referring to the 1953 coup that toppled Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq and consolidated the rule of the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Obama would go on to remind his audience that Iran had also committed its share of misdeeds against Americans. But he clearly intended his allusion to Washington’s role in the coup as a concession — a public acknowledgment that the United States shared some of the blame for its long-simmering conflict with the Islamic Republic.

Yet there was a supreme irony to Obama’s concession. The history of the U.S. role in Iran’s 1953 coup may be “well known,” as the president declared in his speech, but it is not well founded. On the contrary, it rests heavily on two related myths: that machinations by the CIA were the most important factor in Mosaddeq’s downfall and that Iran’s brief democratic interlude was spoiled primarily by American and British meddling. For decades, historians, journalists, and pundits have promoted these myths, injecting them not just into the political discourse but also into popular culture: most recently, Argo, a Hollywood thriller that won the 2013 Academy Award for Best Picture, suggested that Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution was a belated response to an injustice perpetrated by the United States a quarter century earlier. That version of events has also been promoted by Iran’s theocratic leaders, who have exploited it to stoke anti-Americanism and to obscure the fact that the clergy itself played a major role in toppling Mosaddeq.

In reality, the CIA’s impact on the events of 1953 was ultimately insignificant. Regardless of anything the United States did or did not do, Mosaddeq was bound to fall and the shah was bound to retain his throne and expand his power. Yet the narrative of American culpability (more…)

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This is the latest film by Iraqi Kurdish/naturalized French director Hiner Saleem, who directed the well-regarded ‘Vodka Lemon‘—which I have yet to see—, ‘Kilomètre Zéro‘, and ‘Si tu meurs, je te tue‘—which I did see (both good). I greatly enjoyed this one. It’s a genre Western set in Iraqi Kurdistan in the aftermath of the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime. I’ll let Variety’s fine critic Jay Weissberg, who saw the pic at Cannes last year, describe it

The opening sequence shows off Saleem’s deliciously picaresque humor, as independent Kurdistan’s first legal hanging is derailed by faulty equipment. If the scene feels like a Western set in a flea-bitten Mexican border town, the comparison is apt, since the helmer plays with parallels emphasizing the rudimentary infrastructure of the newly autonomous nation and the entitlements of regional warlords. Reluctant policeman Baran (intense-eyed, charismatic Korkmaz Arslan) wants to give up the force, but a brief return home to mother convinces him he needs to get away.

Baran is transferred to a godforsaken settlement near the Turkish frontier, where smuggling is the accepted way of life. Local kingpin Aziz Aga (Tarik Akreyi) offers the lawman protection in exchange for looking the other way, but the upstanding Baran isn’t interested in dealmaking. While unsympathetic to the smugglers, he gives clandestine support to a team of female Kurdish freedom fighters trying to get medical supplies to needy comrades.

The romance angle comes courtesy of returning schoolteacher Govend (Golshifteh Farahani), back in town after convincing her family she’s not ready to be married off quite yet. Frozen out by local parents uninterested in having their kids educated, she’s also a target for Aziz Aga’s salacious crew, which looks to humiliate the independent woman. Baran comes to her defense and gets involved when word gets back to Govend’s father that his daughter is immoral.

The pic’s ungainly title is derived from “Pepper Land,” the name of the local saloon and the only gathering place in this one-horse town. For Saleem, telling his story in an oater format allows him to indulge in a fair amount of genre play along with the Western genre’s longstanding openness to upending gender stereotypes. Govend is the victim of a smear campaign, yet she’s also unwilling to forgo her independence — the joy of freedom beaming from her face while heading back to town and away from the family makes clear her self-confidence and unwillingness to compromise. Adding all-women freedom fighters furthers the femme-empowerment message.

Enjoyable storytelling and sympathetic performances run throughout the story, though for sheer laugh-out-loud absurdism, nothing beats the healthy self-mockery of the opener. A calculated sparseness in the setting acts as a unifying force, especially when scenes tend to have a self-contained feel that doesn’t always create a sense of flow. Visuals favor Sergio Leone-style closeups along with stunning landscapes featuring pink-tinged sunsets and ravines like Utah canyons, showcasing Kurdistan’s natural beauties. Music features a smile-inducing mix of tunes ranging from Elvis to Western twangs to rockabilly, tied together by the multitalented Farahani’s own playing on the steel hang.

Second degré absurdism underlies the whole film, e.g. “sheriff” Baran playing Bach and Elvis in his “one-horse” Kurdish village and the all-female detachment of Turkish Kurdish (obviously PKK) guerrillas. But the pic also takes on more serious themes, such as archaic codes of honor, patriarchy, and forced marriage, which is what the protag Govend resists. And, it should be said, the sublime Golshifteh Farahani is more beautiful than ever, rien à dire. Another theme: the determination of the intrepid, incorruptible Baran to impose the authority of the state and rule of law, here on the outlaw tribal potentate Aziz Aga. French reviews of the film are mostly tops (and particularly those of Allociné spectateurs), as is critic Deborah Young’s in The Hollywood Reporter. Trailer is here. So thumbs up to this one! À ne pas manquer.

While I’m at it, I should mention an Afghan film I saw last fall, ‘Wajma (An Afghan Love Story)’, directed by Barmak Akram, which also deals with patriarchy and archaic codes of honor, but not among tribespeople or villagers but in the educated, urban well-to-do class, here in contemporary Kabul. It’s a bleak, depressing film, and does not offer a very positive image of Afghan society—as I tweeted after seeing it—but is well done and may be seen. Hollywood reviews (good to mixed) are here, here, and here, French reviews (mostly tops) here, trailer is here.


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Islamabad, February 25 2012 (Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

Islamabad, February 25 2012 (Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

The latest NYRB has a must read essay by Malise Ruthven on anthropologist and Islam specialist Akbar Ahmed‘s latest book, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, published by Brookings. Money quote:

As an anthropologist with deep knowledge and direct experience of tribal systems, Akbar Ahmed demonstrates in The Thistle and the Drone how richly Tolstoy’s thistle metaphor [of 19th century Russia’s wars with the tribal peoples of the Caucuses] applies to contemporary conditions in regions, distant from urban centers, where clans resist the writ of government while also engaging with it. He points to their “love of freedom” to act without external constraints, as well as “egalitarianism, [and] a tribal lineage system defined by common ancestors and clans, a martial tradition, and a highly developed code of honor and revenge—these are the thistle-like characteristics of the tribal societies…. Moreover, as with the thistle, there is a clear correlation between their prickliness, or toughness, and the level of force used by those who wish to subdue these societies, as the Americans discovered after 9/11.”

Ahmed is especially troubled by the use of drones against Muslim tribal groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, but his analysis of the nature of the state and its relation with tribal peoples has application far beyond the condition of Muslim tribal societies. As he sees it, the use of unmanned aircraft as a leading counterinsurgency weapon has morphed into a campaign against tribal peoples generally, with the US president disposing of “Zeus-like power to hurl thunderbolts from the sky and obliterate anyone with impunity… Flying at 50,000 feet above ground, and therefore out of sight of its intended victims, the drone could hover overhead unblinkingly for twenty-four hours, with little escaping its scrutiny before it struck. For a Muslim tribesman, this manner of combat not only was dishonorable but also smacked of sacrilege. By appropriating the powers of God through the drone, in its capacity to see and not be seen and deliver death without warning, trial, or judgment, Americans were by definition blasphemous.”

There’s this fascinating passage on the Saudi Arabia-Yemen borderlands, and notably the Asir region

Ahmed, by contrast, sees ethnicity or tribal identity as the crucial factors in the recruitment of the hijackers. “Bin Laden,” he states, “was joined in his movement primarily by his fellow Yemeni tribesmen,” ten of whom came from the Asir tribes… Indeed the only one of the nineteen hijackers without a tribal pedigree was Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian architect who led the operation and had much to do with its planning.

The Asiri background is highly significant because of the region’s history. For centuries the terrain, which is divided between rugged highlands with peaks rising to nine thousand feet and the coastal plain, or Tihama, was riven by tribal conflicts, as in the Caucasus and Waziristan. Like the Pukhtun clans of Waziristan, the Yemeni tribes of Asir are organized in “segmentary lineages” (i.e., prone to splitting) without formal leaders. The clans tended to quarrel among themselves when not coalescing in the face of outsiders. In 1906 the charismatic scholar-king Sayyed Muhammad al-Idrisi, connected to the Sufi or mystically oriented Sanusiyya order in North Africa, was invited to settle disputes between these warring tribes. His rule was in many ways similar to that of Shamil in the Caucasus, as described by those Russian observers, better informed than Tolstoy, who recognized that his diplomatic skills were as impressive as his military ones.

Al-Idrisi’s domain grew rapidly as tribes, attracted by his reputation for piety and justice, rallied to his cause against the Ottomans. After backing the Allies in World War I, he hoped that the victors would reward him by preserving Asir’s independence. All such hopes were dashed, however, following his death in 1922, when the region came under the sway of the reinvigorated tribal empire created by the emir of Nejd, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, founder of modern Saudi Arabia. In his aggressive drive for territorial expansion (which included expelling the Hashemite rulers of Mecca), ibn Saud swallowed up most of the region, leaving the southern part to al-Idrisi’s inveterate enemy, the imam of Yemen. Some 400,000 people are believed to have been killed in the course of this conflict.

The Saudi annexation was followed by an invasion of religious clerics who imposed their narrow Salafist practices on Asiri society. Asiri males were known as the “flower men” from the flowers they wore in their hair (an indication perhaps of their status as cultivators rather than nomads). Even their turbans were adorned with flowers, grasses, and stones. Asiri women were clothed in spectacular explosions of color, their headdresses glittering with coins and jewelry. The Saudi clerics forced young males to remove their “un-Islamic” locks and headgear as well as the traditional daggers that symbolized their masculinity. The women were obliged to adopt the niqab (full facial veil) in place of the traditional headscarf.

In short, says Ahmed, while Western countries were appeasing the Saudis in order to secure their oil supplies, the Saudis were systematically destroying the Yemeni-Asiri culture. During the 1960s this process was exacerbated by the civil war that brought into Yemen 70,000 Egyptian troops who used poison gas alongside conventional weapons. Represented in the West as a Spanish-style conflict between “progressive” republicans backed by Egypt and “reactionary” royalists supported by Saudi Arabia, the war was really a conflict between tribal systems that had been drawn into supporting different sides.

Saudi Arabia: the Evil Kingdom. I’ve said it before and will say it again.

Ruthven’s essay may be read in its entirety here.

Protest against US drone attacks, Sanaa, January 13 2013 (Photo: AFP)

Protest against US drone attacks, Sanaa, January 13 2013 (Photo: AFP)

US drone strikes in Yemen. (New America Foundation)

US drone strikes in Yemen. (New America Foundation)

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Kabul 1962 (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Kabul 1962 (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Check out these great photos of Afghanistan in the 1950s and ’60s, in The Atlantic. Ah le bon vieux temps…

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Last October I had a post on Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, who I called the front-runner in the June 2013 Iranian presidential election. He ended up a distant second, with 16% of the vote. I hadn’t heard of Hassan Rouhani back then. Not that I’m an Iran expert or anything, loin s’en faut, but, FWIW, my wife asked me a few hours ago, while we were walking to our neighborhood movie theater, what I thought of Rouhani’s stunning first round victory. My instant response: it’s great news (duh), as (a) it shows that the Iranian people are moderate in their majority, want to live normally like any other normal people, and would quite certainly cast off the regime of the ayatollahs and mullahs if they possibly could; (b) it incontrovertibly proves that the 2009 election was fraudulent, as the result in that one was close enough so that the regime could rig it, whereas this one was simply too decisive for that; as we say here, le pouvoir iranien était obligé à se rendre à l’évidence; (c) everyone knows that Ayatollah Khamenei institutionally calls the shots and that the president of Iran is the rough equivalent of a French prime minister hors cohabitation—but without even the formal constitutional powers accorded a French PM—, but that the president can influence domestic policy nonetheless, and, above all, induce a relative liberalization of the moral order imposed (mainly on women) by the basij, who can do what they want when the conservatives have the upper hand, but less so when relative liberals are in the ascendancy (so much as I understand how Iranian politics works); and (d) the already minimal prospect of a US and/or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is now reduced to near zero الحمد لله; with the moderate Rouhani’s victory, it’s just not going to happen, period.

Voilà my 2¢. For a take by a veritable expert, see the instant analysis (2½ pages in PDF) by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Shaul Bakhash, on “Rouhani’s surprising election.”

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Syngue Sabour


My post yesterday on Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s ‘Le Passé’ reminded me of this very good film I saw a couple of months ago (English title: ‘The Patience Stone’) and had intended to write something on. It’s set in an unnamed Muslim country in the throes of civil war that is rather obviously Afghanistan—and specifically Kabul, with the panoramic scenes of the city shot there (the interior and street scenes were shot in Morocco)—, is in the Persian language (called Dari in Afghanistan), and stars the sublime Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, who’s in almost every frame. The film, directed by the Afghan/naturalized French citizen Atiq Rahimi, is based on Rahimi’s best-seller novel of the same title (which won the Prix Goncourt in 2008), about a 30ish woman with two small children whose mujahid husband lies at home comatose (from a bullet in the neck), leaving the woman to fend for herself (and in a war torn society where the status of women, even in the best of times, is one of the worst in the world). For details, see the reviews here and here (and French reviews plus trailer are here). All I’ll say about the film—apart from giving it the thumbs way up—is that Golshifteh Farahani’s performance is a tour de force. She’s one great actress, rien à dire!

For the record, I should mention an Iranian film I saw last fall, ‘A Respectable Family’, by Massoud Bakhshi (who usually does documentaries), about a university professor who returns to Iran after two decades abroad and gets caught up in some sinister scheming of his sleazy, corrupt family (thus the ironic title). The pic is, as one may guess, a backhanded critique of a lot of what goes on in the Islamic Republic, of the moral code—or absence of—that guides the actions of a certain number of people there. The plot is complex and I will admit to getting lost halfway through, which I attributed to briefly nodding off a couple of times—due to fatigue, not the film itself, though its pacing did not exactly have me riveted to the screen (it’s not ‘Fast & Furious 6’, loin s’en faut)—, during which I no doubt missed crucial information. And sure enough, one of the reviews said that “[t]his is one of those movies where you can’t miss a single subtitle” (other reviews are here and here; French reviews here). So voilà. If I come across the film on DVD, I’ll watch it again (and this time wide awake).

a respectable family

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Khomeini rises

Adam Shatz has an excellent review essay in the latest LRB of James Buchan’s Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and Its Consequences.


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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below]

Saw this at an avant-première a couple of nights ago (it opens in France on Wednesday). The structure of the film is fairly conventional and one knows that it won’t have an unhappy ending—it is a Hollywood movie, after all—, but it’s riveting nonetheless. I was on the edge of my seat almost throughout. It’s a top notch geopolitical thriller. Before seeing the movie I of course knew that it was about the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis but apart from checking Metacritic’s score (86: universal acclaim) and getting the thumbs up from a couple of friends stateside, I pretty much went in to the theater cold. In fact, I thought it was going to be about the fiasco of the failed rescue attempt in April 1980, which it was not. Now I happen to be fairly knowledgeable about modern Iran and closely followed the hostage crisis at the time, but will admit to having no memory of the “Canadian caper”—which is what the pic is about—or of President Clinton’s 1997 revelation of the CIA’s involvement in it (a news story that must have come and gone, and before I had full Internet access). Having seen the movie, I now know. And what a story. The movie is not an entirely faithful reenactment of what happened—and as one may read in this 2007 account of the episode (that should be read after seeing the film)—but that’s okay. Movies about actual events invariably employ dramatic license and distort the historical record in parts. The film does have a few implausibilities and anachronisms—and particularly in the dramatic airport scene at the end—, and I wanted to rewrite the historical introduction, but no big deal. The details—historical, cultural—are pretty good on the whole and Istanbul was the right place to shoot the pic (though perhaps Ankara would have been even better). One error, for the record: it is inconceivable that the American/Canadian women would have been able to walk through the Tehran bazaar—or anywhere in the city—wearing no head covering.

As it happens, today is the 33rd anniversary of the storming of the US embassy in Tehran. I was living in New York City—and through the entire hostage crisis—and remember the day well. Though my politics were solidly leftist—more so than they are today—I was indignant at the televised scenes that day from Tehran and remained so for the duration of crisis—though was also indignant at the wave of Iran-bashing in the US (e.g. the “Fuck Iran” buttons worn by more than a few on the streets of Manhattan) and acts of physical aggression against Iranian students—whose numbers were huge in the US at the time—, or those assumed to be Iranian (funny true story: American in a store menacingly asks a Middle Eastern-looking male in his 20s, “Are you an eye-rainian student?” Answer: “No, I’m Persian.” Response from American: “Oh, okay”). But the great majority of American leftists I knew—including close friends—declined to criticize, let alone condemn, the Iranian regime during the hostage crisis. Not that they endorsed taking the US diplomats hostage but there was no indignation; moreover, there was an effort to see things from the Iranian regime’s point of view, indeed to apologize for the SOBs. I was not on that page. And then there was the conference on Iran at the New School in the spring of  ’80, where Mansour Farhang viciously attacked Mangol Bayat for her temerity in (gently) critiquing the Iranian regime in her talk. She was visibly shaken at the virulence of Farhang’s verbal assault. And no one on the panel or in the audience stood up for her. Seeing Farhang on 6th Avenue afterward, walking with his alpha academic male pals Edward Said and Samih Farsoun, I had a visceral moment of disgust toward the lot of them (though did remain a fan of Said’s through the decade). Fahrang naturally became an opponent of the Ayatollahs later on. I wonder if he ever thought to apologize to Ms. Bayat for being such an odious jerk that day. Oh well. Back to the movie, do see it if you haven’t already.

UPDATE: In the interest of balance here is a critique of ‘Argo’ by Iranian-Canadian journalist Jian Ghomeshi, that was just sent to me by a friend who was a Canadian diplomat in Tehran in the early ’90s (and where he met his wife, so his link to the country is ongoing). Some of Mr. Ghomeshi’s criticisms are well-taken, though I do think he is being overly sensitive. And it is not true that “there is not one positive Iranian subject in the entire story” (e.g. the housekeeper at the Canadian ambassador’s residence). As for his calling the 1991 Hollywood potboilier ‘Not Without My Daughter’ “a particularly racist film about the U.S.-Iran experience,” he is not wide of the mark here, though what I remember most about that one—apart from its general trashiness—was Vincent Canby’s review, in which he referred to the Sally Field character as the type of American, who, if she were a tourist in Paris, would insist on eating at McDonald’s. On ‘A Separation’ Mr. Ghomeshi may rest assured that this film has been seen by many in the West and that since Khatami’s election in 1997 and, above all, the 2009 Green Revolution, the prevailing image of the Iranian people in the US and Europe has been a positive one: of a people who are, in their majority, not anti-American or anti-Western, and who would like nothing more than to throw off the yoke of the ayatollahs and join the modern, democratic world.

2nd UPDATE: French reviews of the film are tops for the most part, with the expected handful that are negative (and the negativity of a couple are not political in nature). The contre one in Télérama—opposing the pour—is particularly inane. As for the spectator reviews on Allociné, they’re even better than those of the critics. Where I saw it (UGC Ciné Cité Les Halles) part of the audience applauded at the end.

3rd UPDATE: Journalist and author Michael Totten, who has reported from the Middle East over the years, has a good review of the film in City Journal. He says it may be enjoyed by Democrats and Republicans alike. I agree. He links to a couple of knuckleheaded leftist reviews of the pic that I had missed. I should say that I do not share Totten’s assertion that Hollywood films about the Middle East and terrorism have a “leftist bias,” and I make it a point to see all of them. The problem with Hollywood films on the region is simply that they’re bad, period. The best film on the Middle East and terrorism I’ve seen in a while—and that is fast-paced and action-filled—is ‘Labyrinth’, by Turkish director Tolga Örnek, which I wrote about earlier this year.

4th UPDATE: Brown University prof Shiva Balaghi slams ‘Argo’, calling it “Jingoism as history.” Ouch! (February 21, 2013)

5th UPDATE: Critic Kevin B. Lee writes in Slate that ‘Argo’ is “the year’s worst Best Picture nominee” and tells the movie to go “f—k yourself.” Strong language. Lee criticizes the film for what it isn’t more than for what it is. IMO he would be better off f—king himself. (February 25, 2013)

6th UPDATE: Adam Garfinkle weighs in on ‘Argo’ on his blog. He liked around 99.44% of the film, so he said, but the remaining 0.56% grated on him. His explanation, while overly long—as is his wont—, is worth the read (his critique differs considerably from those of Shiva Balaghi and other tiersmondistes). (February 28, 2013)

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Today’s NYT has an op-ed by Graham T. Allison Jr., a well-known political scientist at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Shai Feldman, director of Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies, on why Benjamin Netanyahu has backed down on his blustering threats to attack Iran. The entire Israeli defense and intelligence establishment is vehemently opposed to it—and, above all, of Israel going it alone without the United States—, and the US is not going to give Israel the green, or even yellow, light to send its bombers to Iran—and no matter what anyone says, Israel cannot launch such an operation without at least the tacit assent of Washington. And all the more so because, as Allison and Feldman point out, the Iran nuclear threat has deepened the US’s strategic alliance with Israel, implicitly making it ever less likely that Israel would, or could, do it without America and in the face of the latter’s objections. I have been saying for years that Israel will not attack Iran, mainly because it can’t (here, here, and here). But the US won’t either, as just about everyone in the American defense and intelligence establishment is dead set against going to war with Iran (Robert Gates warned last week of the “catastrophic” consequences of an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites). In the vice-presidential debate on Thursday Joe Biden said, in effect, that the US was not going to get into another war in the Middle East—with Iran or in Syria—and Paul Ryan, though criticizing the Obama administration’s policy, did not indicate that a Romney administration would do otherwise. The Iranians will no doubt do their part to insure that the US does not have a pretext to attack, as it is almost inconceivable that they would ever announce that they had reached Bibi’s red line. So there’s not going to be a war with Iran, and even if the Mittster wins on November 6th (which is, alas, not out of the question).

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