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Entries tagged "Iran"

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Talking Points: State of the Union, of War, of the Middle East

February 10, 2014 ·

Obama State of the Union 2014President Obama’s State of the Union speech was pretty depressing.  It didn’t start out that way, it was actually a pretty nice strong framework: 'You members of Congress can’t get anything done, so I’m going to check out what I can do on my own, by executive action, without you.' He started by raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers – he can do that on his own, maybe it’ll start a groundswell.  That’s all good, for those hundreds of thousands of workers and their families (even though his is still below the poverty line for a family of four). 

Obama even said "America must move off a permanent war footing." That should’ve been a Wow! moment. But somehow it wasn’t. He did say he would impose "prudent limitations" on the drone war – his signature war. He even said, "We will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence."  But the problem is we do strike in other countries "without regard for the consequence." The only "prudent" approach to the drone war is ending it, not just tweaking it a bit.  And that’s what we didn't hear.

We also didn’t hear plans to close down the 700-plus U.S. military bases around the world that create huge social and environmental problems and foment anti-U.S. tensions. We didn’t hear plans for massive cuts in military spending – by closing those bases, cancelling wasteful giant weapons systems, and ending illegal and immoral wars. My commentary on the State of the Union speech analyzes these and more issues we didn’t hear about (plus Iran and a few other things that we did).  And if you want to go back to the day before the speech, and look at what President Obama should have been talking about you can get some ideas from my IPS colleagues and me on inequality, trade and Iran (not) in the Syria talks.

Iran and AIPAC

Netanyahu AIPACThere is some good news on Iran, but we have to be careful.  The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is losing — that’s huge. AIPAC has been waging a no-holds-barred, increasingly desperate campaign to derail the interim agreement between Iran and the U.S.-led "Perm 5 + One" global powers (Britain, China, France, Russia, United States and Germany.)  Last month it looked like the lobby – as is too often the case – was winning. The AIPAC-led campaign resulted in 49 Senators signing on as co-sponsors of a bill imposing a whole host of new sanctions if Iran didn’t behave exactly as they wanted. They were aiming for a veto-proof 67-vote majority – and getting 49 the first couple days made that seem possible. I discussed the threat of the war-mongers scuttling the agreement here in Common Dreams

But then it stalled. Top U.S. intelligence officials – and crucially, the White House – agreed that new sanctions would be a deal breaker. The White House took an uncharacteristically tough position, calling out those in Congress who preferred war to diplomacy. And during the State of the Union speech President Obama powerfully reminded Congress that diplomacy is working, that negotiations are responsible for "halt[ing] the progress of Iran’s nuclear program…Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium. It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb." Then the kicker: "Let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it." At least three of the original 49 have now pulled back.

So the agreement is in place, and for now it’s holding. That’s all good, but it still faces some danger. Despite opposition from Iran’s own hard-liners (whose position the Washington Post says "mirrors that of Republicans in the U.S. Congress") Tehran has welcomed UN nuclear inspectors, and is in the process of implementing the various requirements of the agreement. (In case you missed it, you can read my analysis of the agreement here in The Nation.) Washington and its allies haven’t yet begun releasing the small amount of Iran’s assets authorized in the agreement, or begun easing any of the few sanctions the agreement calls for reducing.  Hard-core opponents of the agreement, led by Democrat Robert Menendez, remain committed to war over diplomacy. And AIPAC hasn’t given up. The pressure remains. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s refusal to put the new sanctions resolution on the table, President Obama’s threat to veto any new sanctions bill, the 70+ members of the House who have signed a letter supporting the Iran agreement and opposing new sanctions – all could collapse unless public pressure is maintained against AIPAC’s powerful arsenal of bribes and threats. That’s our job – we can’t count on official Washington to do it. Sign the petition here for a start.

Palestine-Israel: The Price to be Paid

John Kerry Iran Nuclear DealThe role of AIPAC makes a necessary segue into talking about Palestine and Israel – I talked about the connection between the Iran talks and Palestine in a discussion on the Real News.  That led immediately to Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts towards a new framework to lay the groundwork for a future agreement.  Oh, you thought he’s finally drafting a real comprehensive, just, permanent peace agreement that would actually resolve all the crucial elements of settlements, borders, refugees, Jerusalem, etc.?  Oh no, that’s so last summer...

That’s when we first heard about Kerry’s new shuttle diplomacy. It never had much of a chance – I called it the "Einstein Round" of the U.S. peace process – the great scientist’s definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.  Unfortunately that’s still the case – although Kerry has achieved something none of his predecessors ever did: he managed to prevent almost all leaks throughout months of not-in-the-same-room negotiations. Until the leaks – apparently quite well orchestrated – began early in January, apparently to begin preparing Palestinian, Israeli and U.S. publics for the result.

It’s not a pretty sight. According to top PLO official Yasir Abed-Rabbo, Kerry’s 'framework' – as distinct from an actual agreement – would

  • Require Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state (thus legitimizing the second-class or worse status of Palestinian citizens of Israel).
  • 'Solve' the refugee crisis by allowing Palestinian refugees only into the new Palestinian state instead of the UN-mandated right to return to their homes in Israel,
  • Ensure permanent Israeli control and likely annexation of the large settlement blocs with about 80% of the illegal Jewish settlers.
  • Allow permanent Israel control of “Palestine’s” border crossings and air space.
  • Endorse permanent or near-permanent Israeli military forces in the occupied Jordan Valley, perhaps adding U.S., Jordanian and/or even Palestinian security forces to them.
  • Allow Israeli forces 'hot pursuit' into Palestinian territory.

The word from Kerry’s delegation chief Martin Indyk, though, should reassure us all – both sides can sign on to the U.S. framework "with reservations" – meaning it won’t actually have any meaning at all. The framework seems far more tied to Obama and Kerry legacies than to an actual end to Israeli occupation and apartheid. That doesn’t mean that something some people might call a "Palestinian state" won’t someday be declared through this process – it just means that that will be a far cry from a just and comprehensive solution grounded in international law, human rights and equality for all.

As has been the case with earlier U.S. 'frameworks,' the Kerry plan is limited to arrangements only for inside parts of the Occupied Territories. The settlements remain in Israeli hands. The borders – presumably the Apartheid Wall — will become the new "border." Israeli and U.S. soldiers will remain in control of security. A big question will be Jerusalem: The Kerry proposals apparently do call for a Palestinian capital in the city, but it is almost certain it will not mean a real shared capital with the Palestinian flag flying over the center of Arab East Jerusalem. Rather, Israel will almost certainly assert its current revisionist demography – in which the outline of “Greater Jerusalem” extends from Ramallah in the North down past Bethlehem and out east almost to the Jordan Valley – to situate Palestine’s capital someplace like Abu Dis, a dusty village outside of Jerusalem. It abuts what was once the old Silk Road, a narrow potholed street that now dead-ends into the Apartheid Wall.

On the other hand, both Israeli and Palestinian negotiators conditioned their participation in these talks on the understanding that any agreement would require ratification by a popular referendum – something virtually guaranteed to fail on all sides.

In the meantime, the Apartheid Wall continues to be expanded, dispossessing Palestinians from their land as it goes. Settlement expansion continues across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And in Gaza, the siege continues, with 1.8 million people largely locked inside the walled-in Strip, exports prohibited, and imports dramatically curtailed by the Israeli military. The situation has significantly worsened since the overthrow of elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi last summer and a resulting tightening of Gaza’s crossing to Egypt, and a massive storm last month created dire new humanitarian crises. You can watch my discussion of the Gaza siege here.

In Israel, the Butcher of Beirut, as he was long known, is no more. After eight years in a coma, during which the militaristic hard-right leader was re-branded a peacenik, Israeli General Ariel Sharon was finally pronounced dead. The tributes poured in, including from Secretary of State John Kerry, who paid lip service to occasional disagreements with Sharon, but reassured Israel that "Our nation shares your loss and honors Ariel Sharon’s memory." For the rest of the world, of course, there is nothing – nothing – remotely honorable in the legacy of Israel’s perhaps most consistent war criminal. You can read the rest of my assessment of Sharon and Sharonism here.

The Good News

On the other hand, beyond the rise of the right and the certain failure of the U.S.-backed negotiations, non-violent economic, political, media and popular pressure is rising against Israel’s violations. The last couple of years’ rise in influence of the eight-year-old global BDS movement, which calls for boycotts, divestment and sanctions until Israel stops violating three areas of international law and human rights, has been dramatic. 

Recent victories include the decision by the American Studies Association (ASA), following the examples of the Asian-American Studies Association and the Native American Studies Association to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The decision, supported by an overwhelming majority, led to outrage from supporters of Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies, including an effort by the New York State Assembly to withdraw funding from the ASA. But as AIPAC and the rest of the pro-Israel lobbies (Jewish and Christian) face so many challenges, that effort collapsed, and the Assembly withdrew the bill under a withering attack from defenders of free speech.

Oxfam’s decision to sack super-star Scarlett Johansson because of her high-visibility endorsement of SodaStream, whose manufacturing plant is located in the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim in the occupied West Bank, was another indicator of the discourse shift. Another indicator is the new level of access to the op-ed pages of the most influential newspapers. The New York Times published Avi Schlaim’s "Israel Needs to Learn Some Manners," exposing Kerry’s initiative as a "clever American device for wasting time," and three days later published BDS leader Omar Barghouti on "Why Israel Fears the Boycott." The Washington Post weighed in with Vijay Prasad’s "A Caution to Israel" supporting the ASA boycott call.

The Post finally acknowledged that "talk about a boycott of Israel is in the mainstream." And the paper noted, for anyone doubting that seismic discourse shifts are underway, that Kerry himself warned Tel Aviv to be aware of "talk of boycotts and other kinds of things," resulting in a chorus of Israeli outrage. 

Action aimed at changing U.S. policy on 

Pete and Toshi Seeger

Israel-Palestine has never been more engaged.  For anyone interested, in a series of interviews I did with Paul Jay of The Real News, we began with a discussion of how I first got involved with Palestinian rights, after a childhood of active Zionist organizing. (Hint: it has to do with Viet Nam.)

I’m also now on the short-list of candidates to succeed my great colleague and friend Richard Falk as the next United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The selection process is currently underway at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

There’s a lot more to talk about – the still-escalating crisis in Syria and the Syria negotiations, the dangerous moment in Egypt, rising violence in Iraq and the still-raging war in Afghanistan.  Those will have to wait for the moment.

But I did want to leave one more memory of Pete Seeger. It’s hard to imagine going forward without Pete’s unstoppable, grounded optimism, his clear-sighted understanding of the need for songs to move our movements forward. What a gift that we had Pete with us all these years. He remains within the pantheon of our movements’ greats. You can read my appreciation here. Go well, Pete, we’ll carry on your songs from here.

Four Things Obama Should Say During his State of the Union Address

January 23, 2014 ·

President Obama

What should President Obama say during his State of the Union address this year? IPS experts have come up with a few suggestions:

Sarah Anderson commends the administration's commitment to improve conditions for the poorest among us, but urges Obama not to forget to do something about the “overprivileged” as well.

Emily Schwartz Greco, together with William A. Collins, asks Obama to stop talking about lowering the corporate tax rate, since there would be plenty of cash to go around if only everyone paid their fair share.

Ron Carver calls on Obama to stop pressing Congress to grant his administration fast-track authority to expedite the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other global deals that are good for corporations but bad for people.

Phyllis Bennis urges Obama to reverse course in the global Syria talks and let Iran participate in them.

What do you think Obama should say in the State of the Union? Weigh in on these issues and others below, and be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter during the address for more commentary from our experts.

February 15, 2003. The Day the World Said No to War.

February 15, 2013 ·

Antiwar Protests 2003 - LondonTen years ago people around the world rose up. In almost 800 cities across the globe, protesters filled the streets of capital cities and tiny villages, following the sun from Australia and New Zealand and the small Pacific islands, through the snowy steppes of North Asia and down across the South Asian peninsula, across Europe and down to the southern edge of Africa, then jumping the pond first to Latin America and then finally, last of all, to the United States.

And across the globe, the call came in scores of languages, “the world says no to war!” The cry “Not in Our Name” echoed from millions of voices. The Guinness Book of World Records said between 12 and 14 million people came out that day, the largest protest in the history of the world. It was, as the great British labor and peace activist and former MP Tony Benn described it to the million Londoners in the streets that day, “the first global demonstration, and its first cause is to prevent a war against Iraq.” What a concept — a global protest against a war that had not yet begun — the goal, to try to stop it.

It was an amazing moment — powerful enough that governments around the world, including the soon-famous “Uncommitted Six” in the Security Council, did the unthinkable: they too resisted pressure from the United States and the United Kingdom and said no to endorsing Bush’s war. Under ordinary circumstances, alone, U.S.-dependent and relatively weak countries like Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Mexico and Pakistan could never have stood up to Washington. But these were not ordinary circumstances. The combination of diplomatic support from “Old Europe,” Germany and France who for their own reasons opposed the war, and popular pressure from thousands, millions, filling the streets of their capitals, allowed the Six to stand firm. The pressure was fierce. Chile was threatened with a U.S. refusal to ratify a U.S. free trade agreement seven years in the making. (The trade agreement was quite terrible, but the Chilean government was committed to it.) Guinea and Cameroon were threatened with loss of U.S. aid granted under the African Growth & Opportunity Act. Mexico faced the potential end of negotiations over immigration and the border. And yet they stood firm.

The day before the protests, February 14, the Security Council was called into session once again, this time at the foreign minister level, to hear the ostensibly final reports of the two UN weapons inspectors for Iraq. Many had anticipated that their reports would somehow wiggle around the truth, that they would say something Bush and Blair would grab to try to legitimize their spurious claims of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, that they would at least appear ambivalent enough for the U.S. to use their reports to justify war. But they refused to bend the truth, stating unequivocally that no such weapons had been found.

Following their reports, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin responded with an extraordinary call, reminding the world that “the United Nations must remain an instrument of peace, and not a tool for war.” In that usually staid, formal, rule-bound chamber, his call was answered with a roaring ovation beginning with Council staff and quickly engulfing the diplomats and foreign ministers themselves.

Security Council rejection was strong enough — enough governments said no — that the United Nations was able to do what its Charter requires, but what political pressure too often makes impossible: to stand against the scourge of war. On the morning of February 15, just hours before the massive rally began at the foot of the United Nations, the great actor-activist Harry Belafonte and I accompanied South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu to meet with then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan on behalf of the protesters. We were met by a police escort to cross what the New York Police Department had designated its “frozen zone” — not in reference to the bitter 18 degrees or the biting wind whipping in from the East River, but the forcibly deserted streets directly in front of UN headquarters. In the secretary-general’s office on the 38th floor of the United Nations, Bishop Tutu opened the meeting, looking at Kofi across the table and said, “We are here today on behalf of those people marching in 665 cities all around the world. And we are here to tell you, that those people marching in all those cities around the world, we claim the United Nations as our own. We claim it in the name of our global mobilization for peace.”

It was an incredible moment. And while we weren't able to prevent that war, that global mobilization, that pulled governments and the United Nations into a trajectory of resistance shaped and led by global movements, created what the New York Times the next day called "the second super-power.” 

Mid-way through the marathon New York rally, a brief Associated Press story came over the wires: “Rattled by an outpouring of international anti-war sentiment, the United States and Britain began reworking a draft resolution….Diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the final product may be a softer text that does not explicitly call for war.” Faced with a global challenge to their desperate struggle for UN and global legitimacy, Bush and Blair threw in the towel.

Our movement changed history. While we did not prevent the Iraq war, the protests proved its clear illegality, demonstrated the isolation of the Bush administration policies, helped prevent war in Iran, and inspired a generation of activists. February 15 set the terms for what “global mobilizations” could accomplish. Eight years later some of the Cairo activists, embarrassed at the relatively small size of their protest on February 15, 2003, would go on to help lead Egypt's Arab Spring. Occupy protesters would reference February 15 and its international context. Spain’s indignados and others protesting austerity and inequality could see February 15 as a model of moving from national to global protest.

In New York City on that singular afternoon, some of the speakers had particular resonance for those shivering in the monumental crowd. Harry Belafonte, veteran of so many of the progressive struggles of the last three-quarters of a century, called out to the rising U.S. movement against war and empire, reminding us that our movement could change the world, and that the world was counting on us to do so. “The world has sat with tremendous anxiety, in great fear that we did not exist,” he said. “But America is a vast and diverse country, and we are part of the greater truth that makes our nation. We stand for peace, for the truth of what is at the heart of the American people. We WILL make a difference – that is the message that we send out to the world today.”

Belafonte was followed by his close friend and fellow activist-actor Danny Glover, who spoke of earlier heroes, of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, and of the great Paul Robeson on whose shoulders we still stand. And then he shouted “We stand here today because our right to dissent, and our right to participate in a real democracy has been hijacked by those who call for war. We stand here at this threshold of history, and we say to the world, ‘Not in Our Name’! ‘Not in Our Name!’” The huge crowd, shivering in the icy wind, took up the cry, and “Not in our Name! Not in Our Name!” echoed through the New York streets.

Our obligation as the second super-power remains in place. Now what we need is a strategy to engage with power, to challenge once again the reconfigured but remaining first super-power. That commitment remains.

Phyllis Bennis’ book, Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the UN Defy U.S. Power, with Foreword by Danny Glover, is on the legacy of the February 15 protests. She was on the steering committee of the United for Peace & Justice coalition helping to build February 15, 2003.

U.S. on a Pedestal of Nuclear Immorality

September 21, 2012 ·

30-plus years ago Iranian zealots grabbed some CIA and Embassy folk in Teheran and held them hostage, and then let them go, and Reagan took credit. But before we plunge into military conflict with Iran, as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu extols, the press might indulge its public in some useful historical review – they forgot some important history – to try to deal with the alleged threat of "nuclear mullahs" as Bill Keller called Iran’s religious leaders.

Maybe, start with questions like: What did we do to Iran and what role did our government have in fostering its nuclear program? And why does Israel’s insistence on U.S. backing become so important to U.S. policy?

Read the rest of this blog post in Progreso Weekly.

Is the State Department Going Rogue? Or Did It Just Forget How to Spell?

July 13, 2012 ·

The State Department, reporting on the latest U.S.-Israel "Strategic Dialogue," was very proud of the "productive, wide ranging discussion of issues of mutual concern."  (Apparently the recommended legalization of all the illegal and expanding settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory is not an issue of "mutual concern" to the U.S. deputy secretary of state and his Israeli counterpart).

No, the focus was only on the regional situation. Regarding Iran, the State Department made odd allusions to facts about the crisis of which nobody else in the administration seems to be aware.  To begin, State noted that the U.S. and Israel had addressed their concern that Iran is engaged in a "continued quest to develop nuclear weapons." There was no explanation of why the conclusion of this U.S.-Israeli dialogue seems to fly in the face of the US intelligence agencies' actual position with regard to Iran's nuclear program, which is that Iran not only does not have any nuclear weapons, and is not building a nuclear weapon, but that Tehran has not even made the decision about whether to build a nuclear weapon.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta asked his own rhetorical question about Iran: "Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon?" He then answered with an unequivocal "No."

It was General James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, who made clear that the U.S. does not even know "if Iran will eventually decide to build" a nuclear weapon.

Is that what a "continued quest to develop nuclear weapons" looks like?  Or is State running its own intelligence agencies these days? 

And then they discussed Syria. Of course it's widely known that the Syrian regime has assisted Hezbollah, a political and paramilitary organization that happens to be the strongest party in Lebanon’s parliament.  But State's view, following its strategic dialogue with Israel, is apparently the other way around – that it is Hezbollah that is somehow shoring up a reprehensible neighboring regime. And apparently, the reprehensible killings it is assisting in that neighboring state are being carried out by a heretofore unknown regime led by someone named "Asad." Perhaps State's note meant to reference the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the brutally repressive government that has reigned over Syria for the past 12 years. But we can't be sure. 

When dangerous regional escalations are at stake, when Israel is threatening war against Iran, and the U.S. and its allies are threatening to join and thus further escalate the civil war in Syria, one would hope for a bit more consistency in U.S. policy – whether or not policymakers are talking to Israel.  Not to mention a bit of attention to spelling.

 

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