The Middle East Channel

Shaking the Kaleidoscope in Iran

Discussion of military action against Iran is again taking center stage. It takes me back to a late September 2002 meeting, when I brought a former senior Israeli official to see the late Congressman Tom Lantos, then the ranking minority member of the House International Relations Committee. Our meeting focused on Iraq, with Lantos arguing passionately for pre-emptive U.S. military action against Saddam Hussein, who he compared to Hitler. Lantos dismissed out of hand our Israeli visitor's suggestion that a war might be destabilizing to the region and to Israel, telling us (and this is close to a direct quote):

The Middle East is like a kaleidoscope. If you pick up a kaleidoscope and look through it, you don't see anything special. But if you shake the kaleidoscope and look through it again, you see something more beautiful than was there before. 

We were taken aback. One of the most powerful members of Congress -- a Holocaust survivor with unchallenged moral authority -- was saying, in effect, that the U.S. should wage war not to achieve a specific goal, but to shake things up, in the hopes that out of the chaos would emerge more attractive options.

Advocates of military action against Iran today are relying on a similar "shake the kaleidoscope" approach. Their arguments are predicated on the belief that all other presently available options are unacceptable. They believe that Iran is immune to pressure; that Iran will abuse diplomacy to run out the clock and go nuclear before the world can stop it; and that containment -- learning to live with a nuclear or even a "nuclear-capable" Iran -- is a non-starter.

Most war advocates concede that military action will at best delay -- not stop -- Iran's nuclear program. Most admit that it will probably kill many innocent Iranian civilians -- the same civilians whose human rights many of them also claim to defend (AIPAC's simultaneous campaign for human rights in Iran, and its campaign for an ever-harder line on Iran, culminating in the current effort to get the Senate to adopt a pro-war resolution, is a prominent example of this phenomenon). And most acknowledge that an attack on Iran could be profoundly destabilizing to the region and could threaten U.S. interests around the world.

Yet their conclusion is that military action is nonetheless both desirable and inevitable. Why? Is it because they hope that shaking things up will lead to regime change? Or because they hope a new pro-U.S. Iranian opposition will rise from the ashes of war? Or because they hope the U.S. can leverage an Iran war to engineer a dramatic pro-West regional realignment? 

This all sounds familiar. In Iraq, the results of exactly this kind of recklessly "hopeful" approach to war continue to play themselves out on the ground every day (and are in no small part responsible for the challenge that Iran poses today). 

Now, as the 2012 election season shifts into high gear, Iran hawks in both parties (and their Israeli counterparts) are chomping at the bit. They will no longer be placated by ever-escalating sanctions -- sanctions that for many were perhaps never about achieving U.S. goals, but about checking off a box on the way to war. They are increasingly pressuring Obama to "prove" his anti-Iran (and, it is implied, pro-Israel) mettle, with the threat hanging over him that Israel may at any time force his hand. Having de facto acquiesced to an Iran approach defined by sanctions and saber rattling, Obama is now faced with the question: if sanctions have proven inadequate to the task of achieving U.S. goals when will the saber be unsheathed?

Back in 2002, my Israeli visitor was shocked by Lantos' cavalier approach to war, but didn't actually oppose military action against Iraq. Indeed, the Israeli national security community largely viewed such action as a positive for Israel. Today, in contrast, senior Israeli military and security officials -- including former Israeli Mossad chiefs Meir Dagan and Ephraim Halevy, former IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi and, reportedly, current IDF Chief of Staff Tamir Pardo, Military Intelligence Aviv Kochavi, and Shin Bet Chief Yoram Cohen -- are openly disputing the pro-war arguments. They join a chorus of voices from the U.S. military, national security, and intelligence community warning against a rush to war.

When Congressman Lantos talked about shaking the Middle East kaleidoscope, an image came into my head: a kaleidoscope filled with people -- Iraqi men, women, and children, U.S. soldiers -- shaken until their bodies broke, creating bloody designs on the kaleidoscope's lens. That gruesome image comes to mind again today, as the chorus of voices calling for military action against Iran grows louder.

Clearly, there is no easy path forward on Iran, but any discourse about war must be a sober one, weighing all options -- including the option of re-committing to serious, sustained engagement -- and taking into account the full range of possible consequences. It must be a discourse in which the voices of reason and wisdom from America's (and Israel's) own military and intelligence communities are not marginalized in favor of the kind of dangerous ideologues and fantasists who made the case for war in Iraq.

With all that is at stake, nobody can afford to let such a decision be hijacked by those who want to shake the kaleidoscope and hope for the best.

Lara Friedman is director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now

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The Middle East Channel

Yemenis turn out to vote despite southern violence

Yemenis queued early Tuesday morning as polls opened for Yemen's presidential election. With only one candidate in the race, Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, the election has been described as more similar to a referendum: Citizens are merely voting to confirm the transfer of power to Hadi according to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) power-transition deal outlining the end of the 33-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The plan called for Hadi to take the position for an interim two-year period, at which time there would be presidential and parliamentary elections. After casting his vote, Hadi said, "Elections are the only exit route from the crisis which has buffeted Yemen for the past year." According to Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra, the election is not about voting for a single candidate, "but to pave the way for Yemen to go forward. This is basically about restarting the nation from scratch." Despite extensive security measures, there were several instances of violence concentrated mostly in the southern port city of Aden. In one attack, a 10-year-old child was among four people killed when southern separatists and police clashed near the election commission's Aden headquarters. The southern movement called for a boycott of the election and a day of "civil disobedience." Regardless, a turnout of up to 80 percent is expected in what many Yemenis say is a critical first step to reform, despite the challenges ahead.


  • Syrian forces continue shelling several districts of Homs and fired upon protesters in Damascus. Meanwhile, Russia said it will not attend the "Friends of Syria" meeting in Tunisia.
  • Israeli Defense Forces diffused an explosive device found on Israel's border with Egypt.
  • Iran said it will participate in talks but maintained its "peaceful" nuclear program is non-negotiable, and is increasing measures "to protect nuclear sites."
  • Israel has agreed to release a Palestinian prisoner held without charge who has been on a hunger strike for over nine months.
  • Saudi Arabia announced its ambassador to Jordan will also serve as ambassador to Iraq, acting as the first envoy to the country since 1990.

Arguments & Analysis

Syria -- Economist Debates (Husain & Hamid et al., The Economist)

In an ongoing Economist debate, Ed Husain and Shadi Hamid square off on the debate motion: "This house believes that military intervention in Syria would do more harm than good."

Ed Husain (for the motion):

Cooler heads must prevail in Western governments. Diplomatic options have not yet been fully exhausted. After the Iraq debacle, we cannot choose military options over diplomacy so readily. In the great game to bring down Iran, and to strengthen Israel, do not go through Syria. Syria will prove to be yet another deadly, expensive detour for the West. Think Iraq, but compounded by sectarianism and regional contagion.

Shadi Hamid:

Opponents of the military option will often point to the regional fallout that would result from military intervention. They do not always, however, point to the regional escalation that is already occurring without military intervention. Iran and Russia are actively supporting one side in a civil war, supplying the Syrian military with arms, equipment and technical expertise. Indeed, many of the supposed risks of intervention have already come to pass and will continue to grow worse in the absence of more determined action on the part of the international community.

‘Israeli leader wrongly blames UN and Arab States for Palestinian refugees' (Leila Hilal, The Atlantic)

"Ayalon's primary criticism of the UNRWA is that it has failed to resolve a single case of Palestinian displacement, and that responsibility for the refugees should be handed over to the global refugee agency -- the United Nations High Council for Refugees (UNHCR) -- so that Palestinians can be treated somewhat like refugees from other crisis areas such as Bosnia, Congo, or Darfur. This would actually subverts his own argument for resettlement, though; UNHCR's long-standing policy, based in international law, is that the preferred durable solution for refugees is voluntary return. Voluntary local integration and third-country resettlement are considered alternatives where repatriation is undesirable or not possible. In other words, if Palestinians were to be treated like refugees from Bosnia or other conflict zones, the international community would be forced to address their long-standing demand to choose whether to return to their place of origin -- namely Israel."

‘The Maghreb's Islamists must look West' (Moha Ennaji, The Daily Star)

"There are also concerns about inexperienced Islamist officials' ability to run finance ministries. But the region's Islamist parties appear to be conscious of these risks, and determined to mitigate them. They know that they need economic growth to curb unemployment and pay for social services, so they are working to bolster the private sector. In many cases, they are even advocating the kind of free-market policies that their secular predecessors favored. Those policies should include trade liberalization. Until now, less than 2 percent of the Maghreb countries' foreign trade has remained within the region. If the region's new leaders can integrate their economies, a market of more than 75 million consumers would attract more foreign investment and trade with the rest of the world."

--Tom Kutsch & Mary Casey

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