BEIRUT — The agreed parameters of a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program that were reached Thursday between Iran and the P5+1 powers represent a monumental achievement that affirms the power of reason and diplomacy over the ravages of fear and warfare. The technical details of the complex understanding remain to be completed. For now, though, the lasting significant aspects of this development are about the past and the future: The past being the bold leadership that Iran and the United States have shown in launching and advancing the diplomatic negotiations, and the future being about the potential significant regional changes that will follow the implementation of a full agreement.
I will assess in a separate column the potential positive changes in the region that this agreement could trigger. Here I would note enthusiastically the historic lessons to be learned about the power of negotiations over threats. More specifically, this is about the capacity of serious and responsible leaders to advance a diplomatic negotiation by having the courage and confidence to change positions they had long held, but that had become untenable over time. It took serious courage, for example, for the United States and the others with it to finally accept that Iran has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, under international inspections and safeguards.
The United States and Israel in particular for years had fervently opposed allowing Iran to maintain any enrichment facilities that would allow it to produce its own nuclear fuel. Israel stuck to its extremist position, but the United States came to terms with the reality that threats, sanctions and repeated talk of war had not slowed down Iran’s uranium enrichment program, but in fact only saw it expand. The United States’ tacit acknowledgment in 2013 that Iran would maintain its enrichment capabilities — because it had already achieved them and they could not be bombed away — opened the door for a serious negotiation.
Toning down the constant threats of American military attacks against Iran also helped to open that door. Never mind that Washington continues until this day to use offensive language about Iran that presupposes Tehran’s deception and mendacity in conducting its policies and negotiations, treating Iran like one would treat a delinquent offender who has to be nursed back into a normal life under strict police supervision. Iran understood that this was primarily for domestic U.S. and Israeli consumption, where racist language against Arabs, Iranians and others in this region is routine.
Iran largely ignored the offensive tone, in favor of focusing on the substance of the negotiations that had to allow Iran two things: to continue its nuclear program, including enriching uranium and conducting research and development work, for verifiably peaceful purposes; and, simultaneously to result in lifting the sanctions against Iran. The Americans and their partners eventually acknowledged these two demands.
The Iranians also had to make some significant changes in their positions. These included issues like the length of the agreement, the nature of inspections and monitoring, the pace of sanctions reduction, and the magnitude and kinds of nuclear materials production facilities. Iranian leaders mustered significant humility and courage to accept the key demands of the P5+1 parties that are supposed to prevent Iran from achieving a speedy breakthrough to producing a nuclear bomb.
Iran made such big concessions for two important reasons, or principles, that others in conflict situations can learn from: reciprocity and respect. When the Americans and their colleagues started dealing with Iran on the basis that concessions would be made by both sides, and that such concessions would happen on the basis of respecting the rights of all parties equally, breakthroughs started to happen.
The obvious agreement that could have been identified a decade ago finally moved ahead towards consummation in the past year, with all negotiators getting their key demands. Israel has been left in the dust to a large extent for now. The human and political sides of reaching agreement have been much tougher than the technical details. Rarely in modern history have we seen such decisive statesmanship, reflecting a rare combination of realism, honesty, humility, boldness and foresighted leadership. These attributes rarely all gather in the chests of individual human beings, but they have done so here.
We have seen such history-making leadership in several other episodes in the past two generations: when the United States and China reconciled, when the Apartheid South African system transformed to democratic majority rule, when Northern Ireland leaders ended their conflict and shared power democratically, when Polish leaders and opposition members negotiated a transition away from Communist authoritarianism towards an elected government, and when Mikhail Gorbachev saw the bankruptcy of Soviet authoritarianism and initiated a transition to something better for his people.
The men and women who conducted this diplomacy join a special group of leaders and officials, all of whom deserve great thanks and appreciation from the entire world for reminding us of the immense power of negotiating on the basis of reciprocity and respect.
The pattern of young people from the Middle East and North Africa getting into trouble -- as we used to say in the 1960s -- has evolved in recent decades from isolated and episodic incidents into a veritable global phenomenon.
The "trouble" these days, however, is not local gangsterism or self-inflicted problems with drugs or crime. The structural problems of young Arabs, North Africans and Asians -- economic, social and political -- have emigrated with them to other parts of the world. Many in our region and abroad have warned for three decades now of the dangers of ignoring the obvious stresses and disequilibria that plague so many young people in the Arab-Asian region. The cost of continued inaction and irresponsibility is not only higher now, it is also spreading around the world.
The news Tuesday was typical: young men of North African origin burn cars and clash with police throughout France for nearly two weeks straight. Smaller incidents of random violence plague German cities. Young Middle Eastern immigrants are arrested in Australia before setting off a potentially catastrophic series of terror bombings. Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, young men continue to feed the recruiting lines of suicide bombers, resistance fighters, social-economic and political militants, freelance terrorists and legitimate, peaceful Islamist activists, all sharing a common attribute across the continents. They are dissatisfied with their current status and prospects in society and they will no longer stew in silence. They have moved beyond passive acceptance of their fate to the point of engaging in dynamic, violent actions that they see as assertive, redemptive or simply an appropriate expression of their anger, humiliation, marginalization and, above all, fear.
The causes of the violent, often nihilistic, acts of young Middle Eastern men around the world are neither unknown nor beyond the realm of corrective policies. There are no puzzles here. The core problem is mass degradation and alienation that manifest themselves in two milieus simultaneously: in urban belts of educated, usually unemployed, young men throughout Arab-Asian towns and cities; and in the parallel urban zones of mass disenfranchisement and marginalization that have become more common and visible in Western Europe, North America and Australia.
This is a cruelly recurring problem of inadequate integration and citizenship rights that plagues a young man in his own country, and again when he and his family immigrate to Western lands. Arab experts and colleagues abroad have repeatedly documented the multifaceted malaise of Arab youth: poor education, abuse of power, limited and unequal economic opportunities, lack of personal freedoms, cultural alienation, substandard housing, poverty, quality of life disparities, hyper-urbanization, the stresses of internal or international migration, low global competitiveness, weakening family and community networks, changing gender roles, the impact of global media, and increasing environmental pressures, to mention only the most obvious.
These problems that push young Arabs to violence are firmly anchored in the overarching weaknesses and distortions of their home societies, where power is wielded without sufficient accountability, education is provided without enough opportunity, and people often are not allowed by law even to express their basic social, religious, ethnic and political identities. The consequent tensions that build up are briefly alleviated or postponed through consumerism and materialism, enjoying Baywatch and Batman on television, or repeatedly denouncing America, Israel, British colonialism, and all the Arab leaders in passionate oratory.
This diversionary interlude lasts for, oh, about five-to-seven years in warm climates, and seven-to-ten years in cooler ones. Then, one day, the human spirit snaps. Baywatch, Batman, subsidized falafel sandwiches, and cell phones with cameras and music players no longer compensate for the existential fears that haunt many of our youth.
Our collective problem in the north and south alike is that we are talking about nearly a hundred million men and women who fall into this category of disenchanted adolescents and under-30 youth whose fundamental humanity has been pushed beyond the limits of its genetic and emotional programming. The sheer numbers are both telling and numbing: The population of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has increased from some 60 million in the 1930s, to 112 million in the 1950s, to over 415 million today -- an astounding seven-fold increase in just three generations. The population will not stabilize until it doubles again to over 800 million by around 2050.
International Labor Organization (ILO) data shows that high population growth rates in the past decade have been coupled with a high labor force growth rate of 3.3 percent a year. Labor markets have done a poor job in trying to absorb the 3.6 million people every year who enter the job market; they will do no better from now until 2015, during which the labor force is expected to grow by 2.6 percent annually, meaning that some four million new workers will seek jobs every year. Only one in every third young person is working, in a region that suffers the highest youth unemployment rates in the world--around 30 percent.
One reason for this, the ILO notes, is that the education system produces unemployable youth. Graduate unemployment reaches up to 50 percent and more in Jordan and Yemen, and 27 percent in Morocco. This challenge of a large number of educated, unemployed young men and women will persist for decades ahead, because of the peculiarly young age of the Arab population. Those aged 20-24 years have increased from 10 million in 1950 to 36 million today, and will reach at least 56 million by 2050, because the under-15 population in the MENA region comprises 36 percent of the total population (compared to just 16 percent in Europe).
The really shocking thing is not staggering data, or the shocking political and human implications--but that none of this is new or surprising. These trends have been documented and pointed out for at least a generation. I remember when such statistics and projections were first broached in the region in the late-1970s, eliciting raised eyebrows, but not much else.
Burning cars in Paris and interrupted terror bombings in Sydney may achieve that which a generation of indigenous, patient scholarship, analysis and activism in the Middle East and North Africa have not elicited: serious political and economic reforms that assert the basic rights of Arab citizens to live in societies defined by decency and equality, and the indelible humanity of Arab youth who have been deformed beyond recognition by the inequities of their own tortured political cultures.
My vote for the Strange Statement of the Week Award goes to Brigadier General Mark Hertling, deputy commander of the First Armored Division of the U.S. Army, stationed in Iraq. The general told reporters that the coordinated bombings in Baghdad on Oct. 27 were the work of "foreign fighters."
In his Oct. 28 press conference, President Bush, too, blamed "foreign terrorists" for the devastating suicide bombings in Baghdad.
It's as if both the Brigadier General and President Bush were favorite sons of Tikrit, raised on date palms and memories of the ancient era of ruler Haroon al-Rashid, a golden age. The general, especially, should get the award for the sheer audacity and haughty self-indulgence as a foreign fighter in Iraq blaming other foreign fighters for the violence there.
We must navigate this slippery ground if we wish to end the military, moral and political violence that defines so many aspects of Iraq today. The Americans in Iraq, like the Israelis in Gaza, want the world to believe that evil people who hate goodness, democracy and freedom are waging a campaign against them, which must be stamped out with force. In this view, evil emanates unilaterally from twisted minds and manifests itself in the form of terror attacks such as we witness in Iraq.
The rest of the world is not buying this line, because it is the sort of lying that our parents taught us to resist, and the sort of political and moral terror that the United Nations Charter was designed to negate. The rest of the world takes a more complete and accurate view of the violence in Palestine-Israel and Iraq. It notes that occupation, resistance, and assorted degrees of terror (by sovereign states and non-state groups) occur in a linear manner: Occupation breeds resistance. This subsequently and predictably becomes a cycle of violence that engulfs occupier, occupied, innocent bystanders and other interested third parties who join the fray.
Indeed, the reality in Iraq is more nuanced than Bush administration versions, less simplistic, and goes something like this: Saddam Hussein ran an evil and terrible regime that caused the Iraqi people great suffering. The world is delighted that he is gone. His removal by the unilateral force of Anglo-American arms has generated a different kind of suffering for many Iraqis, including security concerns, infrastructural problems, political uncertainties and tensions and humiliations that are inherent in foreign occupations and the sort of social engineering the United States is trying to achieve in re-creating Iraq.
The Anglo-American assault has also generated new concerns among other people in the region who fear the consequences of a simplistic American formula for changing regimes and remaking societies largely in their own image.
Washington arrogantly portrays the choice in Iraq as either the evil of Saddam Hussein or the promise of security of Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator of Iraq. This, too, the world is not buying. The reality is not so black and white, regardless of how comfortable the White House is with such simple-mindedness. This paint-and-think-by-numbers approach to the world has unraveled before the realities on the ground.
Most of the people in the Middle East and throughout the world today reject the American attempt to blame small groups of terrorists for the violence in Iraq without considering the wider context of the terror. I would guess that most of the world sincerely condemns the terror, delights in the Iraqi people's liberation from the terrible former regime, and sees the end of the violence coming through a speedy, orderly Anglo-American exit from Iraq, and a resumption of Iraqi sovereignty, as per the wishes of the Iraqis themselves.
In other words, the problem in Iraq is both the "foreign terrorists" who bomb innocent civilians and foreign occupiers, and also the "foreign fighters" from the United States, United Kingdom, Poland, Spain and other distant and alien lands who perpetuate the distortions and stresses that are inherent in the regime-change phenomenon. The record is increasingly clear: three American-driven regime changes in Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq have given the world three twisted and violent lands.
Political terror and the terror of bombs have now come together in the lands where America and Israel have sought and made regime changes. Paul Bremer and Osama bin Laden clearly are not synonymous or morally equivalent. They operate according to very different goals, stimuli, and values. But the consequences of their policies end up being very similar -- especially when viewed through the eyes of innocent civilians dying on the streets of their own cities, whether in New York or Baghdad.
Rami Khouri is a political scientist and executive editor of the Daily
Star newspaper in Beirut, Lebanon.
BEIRUT, Lebanon -- To fully understand this war and its consequences, it's necessary to watch both Arab and American television.
For different reasons, Arab and American broadcasters provide a distorted, incomplete picture of the war in Iraq -- while accurately reflecting emotional and political sentiments on both sides.
Every day I scan through 20 different Arab and American TV services. This is a painful exercise, because the business of reporting and interpreting the serious news of war has been transformed into a mishmash of emotional cheerleading, expressions of primordial tribal and national identities, overt ideological manipulation by governments and crass commercial pandering to the masses in pursuit of audience share and advertising dollars.
American television tends to go heavy on the symbols of patriotism. American flags flutter as part of on-screen logos or backdrops, while emotional collages of war photos are used liberally at transitions between live reporting and advertising breaks. American TV tends to reflect the pro-war sentiments of the government and many in society. You see and hear it in the tone of most anchors and hosts; the endless showcasing of America's weapons technology; the preponderance of ex-military men and women guests; the choice to rarely show Iraqi civilian casualties, but highlight U.S. troops' humanitarian assistance to Iraqis; and reporters'� and hosts'� use of value-laden and simplistic expressions like "the good guys" to refer to American troops.
The most unfortunate and professionally disgraceful aspect of U.S. television coverage, in my view, has been the widespread double assumption that Iraqis would offer no resistance and would welcome the American army with open arms. Some Iraqis will surely do so, but most people in this region now see the Americans as an invading force that will become an occupying force. The American media reflect widespread American ignorance about what it means to have your country invaded, occupied, administered and retooled in someone else's image.
Americans know that their impressive military strength will eventually prevail on the battlefield, yet they appear totally and bafflingly oblivious to the visceral workings of nationalism and national identity. I have seen no appreciation whatsoever in America for the fact that while Iraqis generally may dislike their vicious and violent Iraqi regime, the average Iraqi and Arab has a much older, stronger and more recurring fear of armies that come into their lands from the West carrying political promises and bags of rice.
Arab television channels display virtually identical biases and omissions, including: heavy replaying of film of the worst Iraqi civilian casualties; interviews with guests who tend to be critical of the United States; hosts and anchors who jump to debate rather than interview American guests; taking Iraqi and other Arab government statements at face value with little probing into their accuracy; and highlighting the setbacks to the attacking Anglo American forces, by means that include showing film of captured or dead troops.
We in the Arab World are slightly better off than most Americans, because we can see and hear both sides, given the easy availability of American satellite channels throughout this region; most Americans do not have easy access to Arab television reports, and even if they did they would need to know Arabic to grasp the full picture.
Two days ago, I better understood the need to see images from both sides. Arab television stations showed pictures of dead and captured American troops, many of which were eventually shown on American television. But Arab channels the same day also showed a horrifying picture that did not get into American TV: a small Iraqi child who had died during an American attack, with the back of the child's skull and head missing. The picture was as gut-wrenching and disgusting to Arabs as the pictures of the dead Americans were to Americans.
You had to see both images simultaneously that day to fully grasp the three most important dimensions of this conflict, in my view: one, the terrible tragedy of human loss and suffering on both sides; two, that this was a deliberately chosen American war that could and should have been avoided; and, finally, that we have only started to witness the human, economic, and political costs that will be paid by many people and countries before this adventure plays itself out.
If you're getting your news and views from either Arab or American television, you're getting only half the story.
PNS contributor Rami G. Khouri is a political scientist and executive editor of the Daily Star in Beirut, Lebanon.
What a bitter reality that we Arabs may once again serve as convenient rest stops on Western imperial routes to exotic lands in Asia. I thought that moving forward to the past was something that happened only in the movies.
My generation has spent its entire life addressing challenges bequeathed to us by our parents -- building modern Arab countries and grappling with the Arab-Israeli conflict. But now a rough, new phase of history looms, due to three dangers: deadly conflict among Palestinians and Israelis; political tensions, socioeconomic stress, and governance distortions in every Arab country; and the apparent determination of the United States to attack Iraq and redraw the geo-political map of the Middle East.
The specter of American forces attacking Iraq, administering the country in a strange form of self-bestowed mandate and consolidating American military bases throughout the Gulf, takes us back to a similar period around 1920. The British and French did all this and more. Most of the problems of that still haunt us. They include:
- Western armies that often define our sovereign configurations and political systems
- Foreign sources of money that sustain our economies
- Heavy dependence on the West for basic Arab security
- Lack of domestic consensus on internal governance norms (because the Arab people are not consulted about their preferences)
- Friction due to disagreement over the appropriate balance between secular and religious ideologies
- Common tensions between the narrow, localized identities of tribes, regions, religious minorities and ethnic groups, and more expansive national, trans-national and religious identities
- Strong disagreements on coexistence and cooperation between Arabism and Zionism
If we in the Arab world do not urgently resolve the root causes of our intolerable modern legacy of collective political mediocrity, we will always suffer its consequences -- an indiscriminate maelstrom of large-scale destruction.
Humiliated and frustrated people among us will seek refuge in the escapist furies of nihilism, which they will redefine in violent forms of self-assertive religion, militarism, tribalism and nationalism. They will kill in large numbers, and they will therapeutically market the killing to their dehumanized, desperate soul mates as both legitimate self-defense and righteous vengeance. Multitudes will follow them. We have seen frightening signs of this in the past few years.
These furies of militant Arab nihilism did not appear after someone rubbed a magic lamp. They were born and nurtured -- from the days of our grandparents to the days of our children -- by the cumulative consequences of policy-makers who determined our fate, including Turks, British, French, Arabs, Israelis and Americans. But most recently, they have been mostly our own doing. We've suffered faulty policies primarily because Arab and other decision-makers rarely were held accountable to our wishes.
Is there some way that we might pause this grotesque historical movie in reverse and for a change ask the people of this region what they would like to happen?
I, for one, would like to change the reel. I feel like an idiot playing the role of a rest stop on someone else's imperial route to Kabul. I know 300 million other Arabs feel the same. I understand why imperial transport officers have never sought the opinions of my grandparents or my children, but I do not understand why our own Arab decision-makers also refrain from turning to honest, open consultation at home as the most effective means of quality decision-making.
This is the only effective antidote we have. There is no long-term security to be gained from smallpox vaccinations, anti-missile systems, financial aid or bountiful promises. The only real protection for life comes from delivering human dignity and injecting people with political empowerment and voice. These are the building blocks of sensible decision-making, prosperity, lasting stability and real security -- and a guarantee against having to perform in any more horror shows of modern history.
Khouri (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a political scientist and columnist for the Jordan Times.