Tunisia is latest ISIS target–but not an easy one

ISIS is running a campaign to gain a foothold in Tunisia, where Arab Spring started what seems like so

ISIS in Tunisia

ISIS in Tunisia

many years ago.

This article by my friend Nancy Youssef outlines the goals of the extremists–and the difficulties they’re facing. She draws a clear line between ISIS boots on the ground and ISIS pretensions, as expressed by slick, provocative social media messages. Too often we in the West equate the two, exaggerating the actual strength of the jihadis.

Israel solves its water shortage–calling California

Watch this PBS report to see how Israel has solved its water shortage. It’s been expensive and took

An Israeli desalination plant

An Israeli desalination plant

some time, but Israel now has more water than it needs. Of course the environmentalists are up in arms, because desalination creates, well, salt–but even they admit they have no hard evidence that dropping it back into the sea, where it came from, is harmful. They also complain that it uses considerable electricity and takes up space. That’s the price Israel is paying for solving one of its most critical problems, and showing the way for the rest of the region — and maybe even California, though the PBS report makes lame excuses why California hasn’t done this.

I sometimes wonder if there is any type of progress that environmentalists don’t object to. They are doing their just cause a great disservice by criticizing everything, instead of concentrating on really serious environmental issues.

This reminds me of a demonstration on my street years ago–people demanding that a cell phone tower be removed. I rolled up a garbage bin and told the people to either throw their cell phones into the bin or go home–you can’t have cell phones without relay towers. I was not too popular there…

Russian S-300 missiles reveal more Iran dangers–Mark on the radio

Russia may or may not deliver S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, but just raising the issue has

Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile battery

Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile battery

revealed how serious the Iran situation is. In 2007, Russia signed a contract to deliver five batteries of the advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, for delivery in 2010. Each battery can protect a civilian or military site. Russia cancelled the sale after a UN decision, and now it might be back on. Here’s my analysis in a live broadcast on KQV Radio in Pittsburgh, talking to host P.J. Maloney a few minutes ago.

“Israel is Jordan’s closest ally”

This article comes from a Jordanian columnist. According to this MEMRI translation, he says Israel is

Offshore natural gas fields

Offshore natural gas fields

Jordan’s closest ally, either by design or by Arab abandonment of Jordan. He doesn’t like the idea, to state it mildly, referring to Israel’s selling “stolen Palestinian natural gas” to Jordan–that’s the gas from offshore fields. The main ones are off the coast of Haifa, well north of Gaza. There are all kinds of conspiracy theories about Israel’s intent to steal two small fields off the Gaza coast, even attributing Israel’s war with Hamas last summer to this end, ignoring the fact that Israel is producing huge quantities of gas from the larger fields, and that Hamas fired 4,000 rockets at Israel.

So we learn two things from this: Israel is not popular in Jordan, and relations between the two nations are flourishing in the framework of their 1994 peace treaty. This fits in nicely with my article advocating a new approach to Iran. Here it is…

Mark’s article on a new approach to Iran is here

The Fort Wayne (Ind.) Journal-Gazette is the first newspaper with enough vision and fortitude to print a version of my article about Iran, which goes way off the beaten path toward a new concept in relations, basically saying that both sides of the debate over the framework agreement are missing the point. My thanks to the paper and its outstanding editor, Craig Klugman, one of the few US newspaper editors with an eye toward foreign affairs. Craig was my editor when we attended Indiana University together a few years ago…

Craig and me in January

Craig and me in January

Throw away the axioms: A new approach to Iran

Here are four facts that turn the whole Iran debate on its head:

  • If Iran wants to build a nuclear weapon, it will.
  • Sanctions have accomplished all they can accomplish, and maintaining them or strengthening them would be counterproductive.
  • Iran has an educated middle class that already pulled off a near-successful revolt and is the key to Iran’s future.
  • What Iran does is more important than what Iran says.

Let’s look at these facts one by one and see where they take us. This is going to require some open-mindedness and willingness to consider alternatives that have not been brought before us in the past. It means putting aside our fears and emotions, and promoting our interests instead.

Preventing Iran from producing nuclear weapons is a lost cause, much less the goal of dismantling its entire nuclear program, as Israel insisted on until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 3 speech before Congress. Distracted by the political fireworks, as usual, few noticed that he dropped that central demand.

It is clear that Iran has constructed its main nuclear development facilities in places where even the best American bunker-buster bombs can’t get at them. A military strike might delay Iran’s nuclear program for months or years, but it would also ensure Iran’s hostile stance toward the West for generations, alongside the very real danger of triggering a region-wide war.

Even now, Iran could construct a “dirty bomb,” a device made up of radioactive material that is dispersed by a conventional explosive charge. It doesn’t produce a Hiroshima-style mushroom cloud, but it could leave wide swaths in the target area uninhabitable for years.

The fact that it hasn’t done that shows that even Iran, that radical, mullah-driven, terror-supporting, hate-spouting pariah, understands the consequences of such an attack and is not suicidal.

Iran with nuclear weapons capability might not be the end of the world, literally or figuratively. Nuclear weapons have been around for 70 years now, possessed by world powers and less stable entities like Pakistan, yet only one nation—the leader of the free world—has ever dropped the bomb.

Some political scientists argue that possession of nuclear weapons can actually moderate a nation’s actions instead of ensuring nuclear blackmail or, worse, nuclear attacks. As evidence, India and Pakistan, sworn enemies, have had several major wars—but discounting a flare-up in 1999, none

Mumbai terror

Mumbai terror

since both went nuclear, despite provocative events like the coordinated terror attacks in Mumbai, India in 2008, reliably linked to elements in Pakistan.

So let’s conclude that it’s in our interest to see to it that even if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it will not feel the need or desire to use them. That includes not transferring them to the terror groups it sponsors, knowing that such a maneuver would be totally transparent and would trigger retaliation.

How do we do this? There are two ways. The Western world is well on its way to exhausting the first way—sanctions, punishment, isolation and intimidation. Those measures have worked to some extent, but the effectiveness of sanctions is nearing an end.

Western sanctions have decimated Iran’s economy. Look at the exchange rate of the Iranian rial—it’s

Iran's plummeting currency

Iran’s plummeting currency

nearly 30,000 to the dollar, and much higher on the black market. Basic products are out of the reach of millions of people. Unemployment is high—figures are unreliable, so let’s leave it at that. And despite all the consequences for its people, Iran proceeds with its nuclear program.

The danger here is that continued economic hardships will bring about the collapse of the country, and there is no guarantee that in a state of economic deprivation and chaos, a liberal regime would emerge. History indicates otherwise.

After World War I, the West retaliated against Germany with stiff economic sanctions. They triggered multi-digit inflation—my father recalled taking a basketful of bank notes to the grocery store to buy a loaf of bread—and brought Germany to its knees. The outcome—though I am not arguing that this was the result of the sanctions alone—was that Adolf Hitler took power in Germany, at first through a free election. The master demagogue promised to restore Germany’s glory, and that’s what the people wanted to hear.

Would post-World War I Germany have developed differently if the sanctions had been modified? It’s impossible to know. But the outcome could not have been worse. Even normally lucid Germans descended to the depths of ultra-nationalism, xenophobia and ethnocentrism in the midst of their hardships. The same could happen in Iran.

Of course Iran already has a radical, terrorist-tainted regime. But is there any hope of change if the educated, liberal middle class is driven further into poverty? These are the people who came close to driving madman President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from office after his bogus re-election in

2009 uprising

2009 uprising

2009. Iran’s ruthless security forces barely managed to put down the riots that erupted after the obviously fixed election. These are the people who must emerge to lead Iran away from the violent fundamentalists who are now in charge. And they must do it on their own. Western involvement in their activities would be as counter-productive as every other attempt by the West to involve itself directly in Mideast affairs over the past decade.

We are left, then, with an effort to encourage Iran to moderate itself, giving it “something to lose,” to adopt the concept usually mentioned in the context of the Palestinians but never applied effectively. That means carefully allowing Iran to re-enter the world, emerge from its Western-enforced isolation, and taste the benefits of trade and diplomacy, while guaranteeing that those benefits outstrip the highs derived from radicalism, terror and exporting revolution.

While all this is going on, the West must walk the tightrope of maintaining ties with Shiite Iran’s enemies—the Sunnis, led by Saudi Arabia—unless the West has decided to throw its lot in with Iran at the expense of the others, which is both unnecessary and misguided, though some think that’s exactly what President Barack Obama is up to. The upside of that theory is that US policy is not totally incompetent—it might just be misguided. For example, there is no reason to force anyone to choose between Iran and Saudi Arabia, or Iran and Israel, as the US seems to be doing. They can continue to insult and threaten each other while the world goes about its business. More on that later. Israel is a master at maintaining quiet relations with countries that are officially its enemies, and Russia routinely plays both sides of the streets in world conflicts, showing that in this era, you don’t have to choose sides rigidly.

The most important challenge with this approach is the time lag. What happens between the time the West eases up on its pressure and the time Iran joins the civilized world? It could take years. How do we assure ourselves that Iran is moving in the right direction, without imposing self-defeating measures like sanctions? Effective supervision of Iran’s nuclear program would be a partial answer, and the framework agreement between Iran and the six powers calls for that—but it doesn’t solve all the problems, notably Iran’s support of terrorism.

Dealing with Iran in this new, positive way is not a matter of appeasement. It’s not a prize for terrorism. It’s not giving in to extremism. It’s acting coolly in the interests of the West and, eventually, Israel.

We need to be driven by our intelligence, not our fears. Any enlightened parent will tell you that punishment gradually loses its effectiveness if it is not accompanied by enticements and rewards. That concept applies here even more emphatically, since Iran is no child, and the West is not its parent.

Now let’s put the last issue to rest. Iran is among the world leaders in spewing hatred against the West, especially the US, and Israel. No other nation besides Israel is confronted by a fellow UN member that pledges its destruction. This is not to be taken lightly, but it’s not the main element to determine the future. First of all, Israel can defend itself with anti-missile systems and its second-strike capabilities in the worst scenario. That is both a deterrent and a defense.

Further, what matters is what Iran does, not what it says. In the Mideast, public statements play a different role than they do in the West. In the US, reporters dutifully tote up campaign promises and trot them out to show how candidates don’t keep them. In the West, if you promise something, you’re supposed to do it.

In the Mideast, not so much. Making a strong statement is often the equivalent of doing something. You’ve said it, now let’s move on.

Egypt’s media frequently run anti-Israel content. Conspiracy theories abound, blaming the Zionists and their all-powerful Mossad for everything that’s wrong. So when I started working in Egypt as a journalist in 2009, and especially after I moved there in 2011 for a two-year residence, I expected some tensions when people discovered I’m a Jew and an Israeli.

Quite the opposite. I was warmly welcomed by the dozens of Egyptians in my office, all of whom knew I’m an Israeli. Outside, people who discovered I’m Jewish didn’t tone down their positive behavior. Hating Israel is part of the culture, all right—but it’s nothing personal, and it’s not a big deal. Recently a well-versed and well-traveled expert in Arab affairs laughed with delighted approval when I observed, “Egyptians hate Israel the way I hate broccoli.”

And the fact is, Egypt and Israel have close relations in the fields of economics, military and intelligence. Most of them are out of the public eye. Even key economic agreements, like the QIZ pact that benefits millions of Egyptian workers, are not talked about.

Of course it would be nicer if these beneficial arrangements were public, and if Egyptian media stopped charging that Israel sells poisoned seeds to farmers and sends sharks to frighten tourists away. One day that might happen. But it’s not that important in the larger scheme of things.

Could Israel and Iran develop beneficial ties, while Iran continues to threaten to destroy Israel? The two countries had just those kinds of under-the-table relations, including military cooperation and oil purchases, alongside public dealings, when the Shah ruled before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In the right circumstances, economic relations could flourish again, though military and intelligence cooperation is unlikely.

It might even be beneficial, in a twisted way, for the two nations to continue to trade insults and threats as a cover for resumption of cooperation.

That’s to say, Iran’s threats, Holocaust denial and radical statements are unpleasant. But if they are not backed up by hostile actions, they could even serve a purpose.

The key is to divorce the threats from their implementation—to find a way to entice Iran to stop supporting Hezbollah in its worldwide terrorism, most directed against Israel. To stop funding Hamas and sending it weapons. To stop funding terror groups that target the West.

The problem here, as before, is handling the transition period. No one is going to allow a terror attack or a war here and there while Iran is moving toward its new role as a member of the international community. The incentives must be real, behavior-oriented and concrete. There must be an “or else” factor, but it must not be the dominant element.

Yes, all this defies common wisdom and consensus about Iran. If you’ve read this far, it means you’re ready to start thinking outside the box. Clearly there is much thinking yet to be done, but the conclusion is clear:

Once a policy like sanctions and punishment has run its course, and pursuing it will do more damage than good—it’s time to rethink the whole issue and come up with something new, a policy with a promise of success.

UVA rape fabrication parallels Israel-Palestinians news coverage

Rolling Stone admits it screwed up with its U of Virginia rape story, which turned out to be a total fabrication. This report in The Daily Beast gives a reason why it happened, and it sounds mighty familiar to those of us covering, or trying to cover, the Mideast. There’s something labeled “confirmation bias” here, the

Israel's 2008 peace offer

Israel’s 2008 peace offer

willingness to believe everything, and even discard doubt, if a story fits preconceived notions of good and bad.

That’s what’s been happening in the Mideast for two decades. Palestinians are cast as victims and Israelis as aggressors. Anything that doesn’t fit into that frame probably won’t get printed or written–even a generous Israeli peace offer in 2008, which I discovered, and which The Associated Press banned me from writing about.

This is a serious societal issue linked to PC that could be, and I am not exaggerating, a much greater threat to democracy than Iran could ever be. How can citizens vote if they are not informed reliably by professional journalists who are committed to giving them the facts, the context and the background, free of bias and preconceived notions of who’s right and wrong, who’s good and bad?

Tourist visas still available at Cairo airport

Egypt has scrapped its insane plan to require all tourists to get visas before they arrive, according to this article in the state-owned Al Ahram newspaper. At a time when tourism revenue is vital to Egypt’s economic recovery, such a measure would have been near-suicidal. Now there’s a question about how many potential tourists changed their destinations just on hearing news two weeks ago of the new obstacle–and how many figured it would never happen. As it is, some nationals–including Israelis–need to get their visas in advance, and that’s a several-days-long process involving inefficient (though friendly) Egyptian embassies. The official line is that the new requirement has been postponed until some sort of electronic visa system is in place…don’t hold your breath. Egypt understands that the tourism market is highly competitive, and while Egypt has the pyramids and other ancient historical attractions–other places with better infrastructure and features have seacoasts, beaches and beauty. Good move.

Few tourists at the pyramids

Few tourists at the pyramids