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Tuesday, June 24, 2014 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | NEXT: Can the President Strike an American Anywhere in the...
2014-06-24

Should Obama Go to Tehran? How a U.S.-Iran "Grand Bargain" Could Help the Crisis in Iraq

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As the United Nations reveals more than 1,075 Iraqis have been killed so far this month, the Obama administration has promised Iraq "intense and sustained" support against the Sunni uprising overtaking large parts of the country. Secretary of State John Kerry made the pledge in a surprise visit to Baghdad while imploring Iraqi leaders to adopt inclusiveness in forming a new government by a July 1 deadline. Kerry’s visit to Baghdad followed stops in Egypt and Jordan, followed by Brussels and Paris in the coming days. But our guest Phyllis Bennis argues Kerry’s travel calendar ignores the most important stop he could make: Tehran. The United States and Iran are fighting a common enemy in Iraq’s Sunni militants. But despite much speculation and ongoing nuclear talks, there is little sign the two sides are approaching meaningful engagement on Iraq and the threat of regional conflict it is inflaming. A senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, Bennis is the author of the article, "Don’t Go Back to Iraq! Five Steps the U.S. Can Take in Iraq Without Going Back to War," and of several books, including "Ending the Iraq War: A Primer."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: The Obama administration has promised Iraq "intense and sustained" support against a Sunni uprising overtaking large parts of the country. Secretary of State John Kerry made the pledge Monday in a surprise visit to Baghdad. Kerry, who is meeting with Kurdish leaders today, said Iraq’s most critical task is to adopt inclusiveness when it forms a new government by a July 1st deadline. But he gave new indications that regardless of political developments in Iraq, the U.S. is increasingly prepared to launch military strikes against Sunni militants.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: The very future of Iraq depends on choices that will be made in the next days and weeks, and the future of Iraq depends primarily on the ability of Iraq’s leaders to come together and take a stand united against ISIL—not next week, not next month, but now. Make no mistake: The president has moved the assets into place and has been gaining each day the assurances he needs with respect to potential targeting, and he has reserved the right to himself, as he should, to make a decision at any point in time if he deems it necessary strategically.

AARON MATÉ: John Kerry spoke as the first of around 300 U.S. special operations forces, labeled "military advisers," took up positions in Iraq. Their deployment came hours after Baghdad and Washington finalized a new immunity deal for their mission. Iraqi opposition to long-term troop immunity helped oust U.S. forces in 2011, but the special forces will now be covered while they are, quote, "temporarily present in connection with the current crisis." The special forces’ mission includes acting as forward spotters for potential U.S. airstrikes. Two U.S. aircraft carriers have already been deployed to the northern Gulf region. In addition to potential strikes in Iraq, the Obama administration has also floated the possibility of attacking ISIS militants in neighboring Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: All of this comes as ISIS has expanded its stronghold in the north and west, seizing three border crossings and four nearby towns over the weekend. According to monitors from the United Nations, more than 1,075 people have been killed so far this month in Iraq.

Kerry’s visit to Baghdad and Erbil followed stops in Egypt and Jordan. He is also expected to touch down in Brussels and Paris in the coming days. But some argue Kerry’s travel calendar ignores the most important stop he could make: Tehran. The U.S. and Iran are fighting a common enemy in Iraq’s Sunni militants. But despite much speculation and ongoing nuclear talks, there’s little sign the two sides are approaching meaningful engagement on Iraq and the threat of regional conflict it’s inflaming.

For more, we go to Washington, D.C., to speak to Phillis Bennis, senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. She’s the author of several books, including Ending the Iraq War.

Phyllis, welcome back to Democracy Now!

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what about the United States and Iran vis-à-vis Iraq?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: You know, Amy, this is very much a Nixon-goes-to-China moment. President Obama should go to Tehran. This is the moment when, if we’re serious about what President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry and so many other U.S. officials have acknowledged—there is no military solution in Iraq or in Syria—we have to make that real. We have to figure out how to do the diplomacy. And this is a moment for an outside-the-box, dramatic gesture to say, "We need to talk with Iran, the other major power, the big regional power in the equation, to talk about how to bring these horrific, exploding levels of violence in both countries to an end."

There are some real possibilities here. You know, the U.S. and Iran are already talking to each other. They’re underway in the talks over Iran’s nuclear program. Those talks seem to be going well, although slowly, as anticipated. It’s likely they will not meet the July 20th deadline and will be extended another six months, as was anticipated, in crafting the interim agreement that’s operative now. And as those talks go forward, we should see this—and I would hope the Obama administration would consider seeing this—as a moment to really expand those talks towards what’s known in the diplomatic parlance as a, quote, "grand bargain." What that means is going beyond the narrow constraints of talking about the nuclear question to a broader question of tamping down the tension and actually going towards normalization of relations between the United States and Iran.

This is the moment when that could be possible, because right now, in this exploding, violent conflict going on on a sectarian basis in Iraq and Syria, Iran and the U.S. have a lot of the same interests—for somewhat different reasons, but they come down on the same side. In Iraq, for instance, it’s clear that Iran, on one level, would like to see Nouri al-Maliki and his sectarian Shia government stay in power, but Iran certainly does not want to see an explosion of this kind of destabilizing violence on its long border with Iraq. In Syria, both countries have an interest in tamping down the violence, even though they have differences over what the real threat might be. Iran, in Syria, is still supporting the Syrian regime; the U.S., of course, opposes the Syrian regime. But both Iran and the United States say that they are against ISIS, I-S-I-S, the leading force in Syria that is opposed to the Syrian regime. So, the U.S. and Iran, in that context, are on the same side. It makes the whole U.S. policy very complicated and very contra—sort of contraindicative of what it’s trying to do. It’s challenging itself, if you will. And a new initiative to take on real diplomatic engagement with Iran might be a beginning of a way to get real negotiations underway.

AARON MATÉ: But Phyllis, say the U.S. and Iran have these talks, and they go really well. What exactly does that cooperation do to counter the situation in Iraq, with ISIS taking over large parts of the country, and also neighboring Syria?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, I think we have to be very clear that this is not just about ISIS taking over the country. ISIS is a very powerful militia organization. It’s very disciplined. It’s very violent. It’s very extreme. But it doesn’t have the capacity by itself to take over cities; to take over Mosul; to take over all these border crossings; to control, as claims are being made, an area of land inside Syria the size of Indiana—sorry, inside Iraq, the size of Indiana. It has that capacity because it has allies. And those allies are growing every day because of the sectarian behavior of Maliki’s government right now in Iraq.

Maliki, a Shia leader, is operating in a thoroughly sectarian way, stripping Sunni military leaders of their positions, kicking out government members who are Sunni. So the anger of the Sunni community, in general, is rising quickly. What that leads to is a kind of alliance of convenience between ordinary Sunnis, who may hate what ISIS stands for, but they will stand with them in order to go against the Iraqi government. They’re allying—ISIS is allying with the so-called Awakening Council, which were the Sunni tribal leaders that the U.S. bought off in the period of the so-called surge in Iraq in 2006 and '07 and ’08, when a lot of money was spent to convince these guys to fight with the U.S. instead of against the U.S. They were essentially bribed. And they're fighting—ISIS is fighting with the support of former Baathists, former members of the old Iraq military, the nationalist secular people, who were opposed to the takeover of the United States of Iraq and who were kicked out of their positions. You know, if you remember, back in 2003, the first thing the U.S. occupation did was dismantle the Iraqi army and send home all of these largely Sunni men with guns, with no jobs, no way to support their family, very angry, and then they dismantled the Iraqi government in the name of so-called de-Baathification. And all those people who lost their jobs, who lost their means of supporting their families, they are really, really angry. And they are now fighting with ISIS. That’s why ISIS has been able to make this sweep across northern and western Iraq, because that’s where the Sunni heartland is, and that’s where people are so angry at the sectarian Shia government that they’re willing to ally themselves even with this terrible extremist organization, ISIS, in order to go after the government.

That’s what could change if the U.S. and Iran, working together, were able to jointly bring pressure to bear on the government of Iraq, which is now in this transition moment. You know, they had elections in April. The Maliki government didn’t—the Maliki party didn’t win a majority, but they won more than others, so they’re trying to put together a government. But they’re refusing any kind of national unity. They’re refusing to build an inclusive government, as President Obama and so many others have called on. There’s absolutely no indication they’re ready to do that. Until they do, this kind of sectarian tension is only going to grow, and it’s only going to become more militarized, more violent. What it could mean, if the U.S. and Iran, the two most important allies and supporters of the current government, were together, jointly, bringing pressure to bear, including saying, "No more weapons. We’re not sending any more weapons to your army," which is now functioning, essentially, as a Shia militia—in that context, the U.S.-Iranian alliance, if there were to be such a thing, could play a hugely important role.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis, speaking to NBC News Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the U.S. to attempt to weaken both Sunnis in Iraq and Shia in Iran. He also repeated his warnings that Iran stands to develop nuclear weapons.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: What you’re seeing in the Middle East today in Iraq and in Syria is the historic hatreds between radical Shiites, in this case led by Iran, and radical Sunnis, led by al-Qaeda and ISIS and others. Now, both of these camps are enemies of the United States. And when your enemies are fighting each other, don’t strengthen either one of them. Weaken both. And I think, by far, the worst outcome that could come out of this is that one of these factions, Iran, would come out with nuclear weapons capability. That would be a tragic mistake. It would—it would make everything else pale in comparison.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Phyllis Bennis?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: You know, Benjamin Netanyahu has spent the last several years of his campaign, of his career, trying to convince the United States that opposition to Iran is the end of the story—that’s all that has to happen. It’s just wrong. It’s just wrong. And there’s no way that both Israeli opposition and the very likely virulent, powerful Saudi Arabian opposition to any kind of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement—those oppositions should not be allowed to determine U.S. foreign policy. Netanyahu is wrong. First of all, he’s wrong when he says that the opposition to ISIS is being led by Iran. It’s not. It’s being led by the Shia government in Iraq, supported by the United States. So, that’s the reality on the ground. And this notion that somehow alleviating the possibility of a U.S.-Iranian war would be a bad thing speaks to the bankruptcy of the Israeli policy on this. They’re saying this while they are continuing to kill Palestinians in the West Bank, hoping that nobody will call them to account for it because they’re worried about Iran. So this is really a political move by—not a strategic move, by Netanyahu.

There will be massive Israeli and Israeli lobby and Saudi opposition to any such rapprochement between the United States and Iran. President Obama, in these last two years of his time in office, should use the opportunity to say, "I don’t make my policies based on lobbies, based on what other countries think I should do. I make them on what’s best for this country and for the world. We’re a global power. What’s best for the world is doing everything the U.S. can do to tamp down this level of violence, and that means an alliance with the most stable country in the region right now—ironically, that would be Iran—and the one country that has enough influence in Iraq to actually make a difference.

AARON MATÉ: Phyllis, you mentioned Saudi Arabia. Even the U.S.'s own diplomatic cables, released by WikiLeaks, have acknowledged that it's Saudi Arabia that’s the largest source for the funding of these Islamist militant groups. So, can there be serious engagement with the process in Iraq without a U.S. shift in its policy toward Saudi Arabia?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: You know, in the long term, I think there’s going to have to be a regional shift of U.S. policy that goes way beyond Iraq and the immediate crisis. And that’s going to have to include holding Saudi Arabia to account. This isn’t an official Saudi policy of the government to support organizations like ISIS, but there are wide-ranging reports that a number of Saudi princes have been involved in the funding, and it’s clear that much of the money is coming from private individuals in Saudi Arabia and in other countries in the Gulf, as well—Qatar, the UAE, others—but particularly Saudi Arabia.

It’s the presence of U.S. troops and U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia that first gave rise to the extremism of al-Qaeda. If we look to the pre-9/11 period, what al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were reacting to was not the demand that they raised later—"We want a sharia-based state in the region," etc. That came later. Their first position was their opposition to the U.S. troop presence in Saudi Arabia: infidels in their holy land. And that’s what was the focus. That basis has allowed the Saudi government enormous leeway to not only violate massive human rights in their own country, but play this incredibly destabilizing role in the region, including through support of these extremist Sunni terrorist organizations like ISIS, like ISIS.

So, the question of what the U.S. needs to do includes telling the Saudis that until they stop allowing Saudi weapons, which are ultimately U.S. weapons sold to the Saudis, we’re not going to sell them any more weapons. You know, the U.S. has announced, two years ago, a $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, the largest single arms sale in history. It’s not going to be easy for any government—President Obama or any future administration—to tackle that, when the producers of those weapons in this country and their CEOs make such a killing on those kinds of sales.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis, it reminds me of the Iran-Iraq War—I mean, the U.S. supporting both sides.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Absolutely, absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, why was—why is now Kerry there in Iraq? He was just in Egypt, where he also guaranteed the resumption of more military aid to Egypt.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: And Jordan, the same thing. This is a huge problem, that the U.S. is trying to buy the loyalty of Arab rulers by promising them more and more arms, despite any human rights violations. In Egypt, we’ve just been hearing about the outrageous sentencing of the Al Jazeera journalists to seven to 10 years apiece for doing their job, with no evidence provided. Not a word was said while Kerry was in Cairo. The next day, when he’s in Jordan, he says, "Oh, yeah, by the way, we didn’t like what the Egyptian government did." But in the meantime, they’re continuing to release $500 million of military aid. This is giving impunity to all of these rulers and making it much harder to hold anyone accountable in the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck admitted last week on Fox News he was mistaken about the war in Iraq.

GLENN BECK: And I hate to say these things, and it pains me to say these—first of all, the—we should start with this: Progressives, liberals, whoever on the other side, I will admit I was wrong about the war in Iraq. I really thought we could bring peace and justice and freedom and all of that stuff. You didn’t. You were right. People have to want it, and they have to earn it themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Glenn Beck. Phyllis Bennis?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, it’s all very nice that he is pained to say this, but that’s not nearly as bad as the pain of Iraqi families, so many millions of Iraqi families, who have lost members, who have had family members killed, injured, forced to leave their homes. The apology is a little too late, a little too little.

AARON MATÉ: Phyllis, as we wrap, I wanted to ask you quickly about the situation in Israel and the Occupied Territories over the past week and a half, Israel conducting raids throughout the West Bank, arresting over 360 Palestinians, killing at least four. Your response to what’s happening there right now?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: It’s a horrific scene of collective punishment. There have been three Israeli teenagers who disappeared, settler teenagers from the West Bank. No one knows where they are. No one is sure they’ve been kidnapped. But the assertion is made that they’ve been kidnapped, Hamas is somehow responsible, and therefore Israel has taken the position—and some Israeli officials have acknowledged that they’re doing this in order to weaken Hamas, to destroy the unity government that the Palestinians have created, that this has really nothing to do with the missing boys. Nobody knows where they are.

As you say, more than 360 people have been arrested. It’s now five people who have been killed, from the information I’m getting, in raids across the West Bank. People even now in Ramallah, which is the center of the Palestinian government and the Fatah organization led by Mahmoud Abbas—people in Ramallah have been saying that they are now facing these raids by the Israelis for the first time. The situation in Hebron is almost a complete lockdown. In other cities in the West Bank, Nablus and others, Israeli raids have been going on day and night. This is a massive collective punishment of the two million Palestinians in the West Bank who have nothing to do with what may or may not even be a kidnapping. These boys are missing. The notion that they are kidnapped is not even yet a certainty.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the significance of the Presbyterian Church divesting from three companies—what was it, Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, Caterpillar—

PHYLLIS BENNIS: And Caterpillar.

AMY GOODMAN: —that were doing business in the Occupied Territories?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Finally we have a word of good news. This is an indication of the massive shift in discourse in this country and around the world on the question of recognition of the illegality and, for the churches especially, the immorality of Israel’s occupation. This was a long-fought decision in the Presbyterian Church. Two years ago, they narrowly defeated a motion. Although they passed a powerful motion to boycott settlement-produced goods, they narrowly defeated a very similar motion on divesting from these corporations that are making such an illegal profit from occupation. And they now have said, "We can’t do this anymore. We’ve tried to engage with these companies. We’ve tried to show them, if you will, the error of their ways. They have not listened to us. So we have no choice, because as a faith community, it’s our obligation to act on our faith."

So this, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States taking this position, it’s one more indication that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement around the world, initiated by Palestinians back in 2005, is having an enormous impact. It’s not yet having the sufficient impact to change Israeli policy, but it’s going in a massively important direction in showing the change in U.S. public opinion, and eventually, that’s got to have an impact on U.S. policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Bennis, we want to thank you for being with us, senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, author of many books, including Ending the Iraq War.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll take a look at the drone memo that’s just been released by the Obama administration, justifying the killing of U.S. citizens in drone strikes. Stay with us.

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