Friday, November 29, 2013

Further thoughts about Iran and its nuclear program #3

The diplomacy backers say this is a historic opportunity to change the whole tenor of relations between Iran and the West, and that it will have further implications for a new approach to the whole Middle East and even in our relationship with Russia.

The hawks say that we cannot trust Iran, that they've proved time and again that they do not stick to agreements or that they use a superficial agreement as a cover to continue secretly working toward nuclear weapons.

Fareed Zakaria, writing in Time magazine, says:
"Here's what would have happened had there been no dealIran would have continued to build up its nuclear program, with no constraints or inspections.

"We don't have to imagine that scenario;  it's happened before.  In 2003, Iran approached the U. S. with an offer to talk . . . .  The Bush Administration rebuffed Tehran because it believed that the Iranian regime . . . would either capitulate or collapse if Washington just stayed tough.

"So there was no deal.  What was the result?  In 2003, Iran had 160 centrifuges installedit now has about 19,000. . . .  

"Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu announced his opposition to the deal instantly.  And yet nothing his government has done in a decade has stalled any part of Iran's program, whereas the Geneva deal freezes most of it and actually reverses one key element -- the stockpile of near 20% uranium . . . " 
Do we fully understand what is going on in Iran?    Probably not.   We do know that Amadinijad is gone and that the Iranian people elected a more moderate president and that he seems to have the backing of the Supreme Leader.    But do we know whether they are really intent on developing nuclear weapons?   Or could this be a tactic to change the power balance -- and could that motive be handled through diplomacy?   

The reality seems to be that Iran has the knowledge to develop nuclear programs for energy production and for medical/scientific/technological purposes.   Why shouldn't they, if we can be sure they don't become a threatening nuclear power?   We won't know whether this new president can be trusted or whether he will be allowed to continue with moderation unless we give him the opportunity to prove himself.

That is the question for our diplomats to pursue.   And that opportunity is what is being purchased by this temporary agreement.   It is a test period to see if Iran is willing to live within those parameters.   Is so, why not let them develop nuclear capability for peaceful purposes -- with full compliance with inspections and reporting.

The old Iranian regime proved untrustworthy.   True.   So critics are right to be cautious.  But shouldn't there be a way for a regime to change and be reaccepted in the world?   And how would it prove that it had changed?

By doing exactly what this temporary agreement gives them the opportunity to do.   

The alternative can only lead to economic disaster for the Iranian people and constant belligerance and quite possibly even another war that would draw us in.

Let's take the chance. 


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Critics of the Iran nuclear freeze are missing the main point

There is an important point that is being missed -- or intentionally obfuscated by some -- about the agreement that we and Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia reached with Iran this past weekend.

This is not a final agreement on what to do about Iran's nuclear program.   This is a temporary stop-work agreement that includes diluting the 20% uranium concentrations already achieved;  no new centrifuges can be installed and all work at the plutonium reactor must stop;  and, most important, it provides for daily, intrusive inspections by the U. N. agency.

It is not a definitive end point, but critics are reacting as though this is all we're going to achieve in further negotiations.    By the way, the "we" is not just the U. S.  The six nations who came to this agreement with Iran are the five members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Russia.

Here is what columnist Roger Cohen wrote in Tuesday's New York Times:
"This merely is a first step taken while those negotiations are ongoingIt was the best deal that could be had. Nothing, not even sustained Israeli bombardment, can reverse the nuclear know-how Iran possesses. The objective must be to ring-fence the acquired capability so its use can only be peaceful. . . .

"As Obama said, “Ultimately, only diplomacy can bring about a durable solution to the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear program. . . .

"The strategic divergence between the United States and Israel is not merely tactical. . . 

"The United States has acknowledged that any lasting accord must concede a limited enrichment program to Iran [for peaceful purposes] . . . .  Israel, to the contrary, wants zero Iranian enrichment and Libyan-style nuclear dismantlement.

"The United States is prepared to conceive of an Islamic Republic fully reintegrated in the community of nations, with equal rights. That state of affairs is a very long way off. Iran will not swiftly shake off the suspicions its actions and (sometimes vile) words have aroused. Nor should it be allowed to. But Obama and Kerry are ready to entertain Iran’s rehabilitation. . . .

"Diplomacy involves compromise; risk is inherent to it. Iran is to be tested. Nobody can know the outcome. Things may unravel but at least there is hope. . . ."
This is a much bigger moment that we realized at first.   It is not just about Iran and its nuclear program.   It is about shifting from a war mentality to a peace mentality, from military might to diplomacy.   It is also about shifting power in the Middle East.   Built into the agreement are clear safeguards and the requirement that, if Iran fails to meet the requirements, the agreement will be halted immediately.    Israel will be no worse off than they are now.

Hawks in Congress, fearful people in Israel, and opportunistic politicians are focusing on the risks and the presumed naivite and weakness of our president.   But supporters are seeing this as the fulfillment of Obama's promise in 2008 -- his willingness to talk to our enemies and to work for peace.   As one NYT writer put it:  until now, President Obama has had to focus on the military aspects of cleaning up what his predecessor left:  ending two wars;   now he can begin to work on his real agenda.

Paul Wolfowitz (a major architect of the Iraq war) was interviewed by Chris Hayes on MSNBC.   Given that he thinks the Geneva agreement is a historic mistake, Hayes asked what he thought we should do instead.   All Wolfowitz offered was the sanctions were working;  we should just keep them up and even strengthen them.    Chris got no answer to the question:  "and what then?"

I would like to ask the critics:   If the Iranians were really serious about this, how would it look different from how it looks now?    Do you really expect them to unilaterally destroy their whole program with no assurance that they would get any economic relief for doing so?

As Cohen said, "This is the best deal that could be had."   Not just from Iran but from Russia and China as well.   Even if we tightened sanctions more and forced Iran to its knees to grovel for forgiveness, Russia and China would not go along with such a deal.


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Will they revoke Zimmerman's gun permit NOW? #2

Earlier this month George Zimmerman was arrested at his girl friend's house on domestic violence charges (she says during an argument about her asking him to leave he pointed a shotgun at her and threatened her by breaking a glass table with his gun, then pushed her out of her own house).

At the scene, police found him with 5 guns (a 12 gauge shotgun, an AR-15 assault rifle, and 3 handguns) and 200 rounds of ammunition.

Here is a man who has killed one innocent, unarmed teenager;  has a history of repeated domestic violence charges, as well as assault on a police officer; and numerous traffic violations.

It's interesting that his defense tends to be -- the other person was the aggressor.   That was what got him acquitted of the murder charge:  he 'was attacked' by the unarmed teenager.   In both domestic violence cases, he has claimed that the woman attacked him, that she broke the glass table, not he.    But he is always the one armed, the one who poses real danger to the other person.

Why is he still allowed to own even one gun, much less an assault rifle?


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Good news #2 -- foreign policy

Alongside the shift to better news about the ACA enrollment, suddenly the course of the past few days has revealed a stunning series of positive developments in our foreign affairs.

1.  Syria continues to cooperate in the plan to destroy its chemical weapons;  and experts believe they have solved the problem of where to carry out the destruction.   Inside war torn Syria isn't a safe place to do it, and no other country wanted to take them in for the destruction process.   Now there is a growing plan that would have the chemicals put on ships and towed out into international waters, where the destruction would take place.

2.  The historic agreement with Iran to freeze its nuclear enrichment program, dilute its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium, and allow daily intrusive inspections is a major break through for sanctions and diplomacy -- if the hawks in Congress and the Israel lobby don't ruin the deal.

3.  But that's not all that our diplomacy has accomplished with Iran.   The diplomats are making progress on getting Iran's cooperation in ending the Syrian war.

4.  National Security Adviser Susan Rice has been secretly in Afghanistan for several days and presumably working behind the scenes with the conference of tribal leaders -- which just approved the long-range status agreement with the U.S., despite President Karzai's continued petulant and quixotic undermining.

5.  There is even some progress at Guantanamo.  Blocked by Congress from having trials in civilian courts, the Obama administration is doing an end run around that block, which has kept low-level risk detainees in a hopeless incarceration.   They are holding what amounts to parole hearings to determine which prisoners can be released to their home countries.

Rachel Maddow on her MSNBC show played clips from the 2008 presidential debate, when Barack Obama took heat for saying that he would talk with our enemies with preconditions.  Now that approach seems to be paying off.   All of these fledgling success stories depend on diplomacy, not war.  And the hawkish conservatives don't like it one bit.   Heaven forbid it should succeed.


Good news on Obamacare

President Obama has been hammered from the right, and even from the left on some issues lately.  But it looks like this may be about to change with a sudden series of good news coming from all directions.

1.  Affordable Care Act.  Jeff Zients, the tech czar put in charge of getting it fixed, says that by Nov. 30th the web site will be able to handle up to 50,000 callers simultaneously -- and up to 800,000 a day.

Moreover, there is good news coming out of Kentucky about its very successful state insurance exchange:  it's working beautifully, people are loving the plan, and -- moreover -- young people are signing up.   Chris Hayes on MSNBC asked a state official what their secret is.  She said:   everybody is working together to make it succeed.

No one is excusing the terrible rollout, but a little perspective is beginning to come into focus.  Tonight on MSNBC, Ezra Klein explained why it was so overwhelmed.   During the long drafting of a plan that could possibly pass Congress, the original plan for a federal exchange was objected to be governors who wanted to set up their own state exchanges.   Yes, that's right.   The idea of state exchanges was pushed by governors.    So that's what was planned, along with a backup federal exchange that was expected to cover just a few states that didn't get their own working.

Then a majority of the governors turned around and refused to set up state exchanges.   The federal plan to cover maybe 3 or 4 states is having to cover 30 states.    So it wasn't all just incompetence;  there was some double-crossing as well.

I'll put the good foreign policy news in a separate post.


Monday, November 25, 2013

Give peace a chance #2

It may be willful distortion, or it may be that the war hawks are so constituted that they cannot hear clearly, or it may be that it's simply more anti-Obama politics.   They will try to undermine anything President Obama accomplishes.

The hawks were clearly on full display on Sunday's morning talk shows.   Then Majority Leader Eric Cantor made headlines today with his question:   "Since when do we trust Iran?"

Both Secretary John Kerry and President Obama addressed that.   It is very clear.   This temporary agreement is not based on trust.   Daily, intrusive verification is a major cornerstone in the agreement.   The architecture of the sanctions remains in place;  they will be increased if the Iranians do not cooperate.

It is also set up as an opportunity for the Iranians to begin to rebuild our trust in them.  How they stick to this temporary freeze and complete openness to inspectors will determine how the final agreement is developed.

Give it a chance guys.   Would you really rather bomb them and have them retaliate against Israel?


A quick take on filibuster reform

[Thanks to news articles and Jay Bookman's column in today's AJC for the background on this.]

In commenting on the Democrats pushing through a reform of the Senate rule to limited use of the filibuster, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) expressed his displeasure, saying:  "It's pretty obvious the Senate's going to be converted into the House.   That's not the way the people who wrote the Constitution intended it to be."

Excuse me, Senator.   Your understanding is wrong.   There is no mention of filibuster in the Constitution;  and the only provision for anything other than a simple majority vote in Congress are a few specific instances, such as ratification of treaties, removal from office of a president or other federal elected officer.

As to "the people who wrote the Constitution," they also wrote the Federalist Papers, a series of explications of their understanding of what they had written.   In Federalist Paper No. 75, Alexander Hamilton wrote this:
". . . all provisions which require more than the majority of any body to its resolutions, have a direct tendency to embarrass the operations of the government, and an indirect one to subject the sense of the majority to that of the minority. . . .  [T]he history of every political establishment in which this principle has prevailed, is a history of impotence, perplexity, and disorder."
James Madison, called the "Father of the Constitution, wrote in Federalist Paper No. 58:
"It has been said that more than a majority ought to have been required . . . in particular cases, if not in all, more than a majority of a quorum for a decision.

"In all cases where justice or the general good might require new laws to be passed, or active measures to be pursued, the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed.  It would be no longer the majority that would rule:  the power would be transferred to the minority. . . . all interested minority might take advantage of it to screen themselves from equitable sacrifice to the general weal, or, in particular emergencies, to extort unreasonable indulgencess."
Sound familiar?  It's pretty clear which side the Founding Fathers would be on in this one.  Let's get Elizabeth Warren to sit these Republicans down in a room and read these papers to them.


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Give Peace a Chance

This is historic:   Not since the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 have there been diplomatic talks between the U. S. and Iran -- until now.   But now, in a relatively short time, a temporary agreement has been reached that will make the world safer, while further negotiations continue for a permanent diplomatic solution.

It won't satisfy the hawks in our congress nor in Israel, who have good reason to mistrust Iran -- but they would probably not be satisfied with anything that doesn't involve war.

Here's the deal:   An agreement has been reached between Iran and the six world powers (United States, England, France, Germany, China, and Russia) for a 6 month freeze on all of Iran's nuclear development activities.   This includes not only the uranium centrifuge enrichment program but also their newer plutonium reactor.   It will also have to neutralize its 20% enriched uranium stockpiles and cooperate with intrusive inspections.   The deal does not acknowledge a right for Iran to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, as they had wanted.

In exchange, the U. S. will release $6 to 7 billion of money that has been withheld by the sanctions.   The structure of the sanctions will remain in place and will be increased if Iran does not comply.  To be clear:  the sanctions are not being liftedonly a modest amount of financial relief will be made available to the Iranian government.  If Iran does not comply with any terms of the agreement during the six month period, sanctions will be strengthened.

What this does is to buy time for a negotiated permanent settlement, gives Iran a little relief from sanctions, and tests their sincerity for going further.

Despite Iran's history of untrustworthiness, I believe they are sincere and cooperative.   Sanctions have placed an extraordinary burden on their economy;  the value of the rial has plummeted.   The people elected a moderate as their new president, and he appears to have the support of the Supreme Leader.   Conditions have changed dramatically inside Iran and within the government, partly due to the sanctions, partly due to pressure from the people in electing a moderate as president.

I believe it is time to "trust but verify" and see if we can move forward toward peace.   Remember that after 9/11, Iran reached out to the U. S. and offered help.    George Bush not only spurned their offer;  soon after that he included them with Iraq and North Korea as "the axis of evil."    Also remember that in 1953 our government was behind the overthrow of their democratically elected government and Prime Minister Mossadegh because they had nationalized the oil industry.    So the Iranians have reason to distrust us, as we do them.

But, hey, why don't we give peace a chance?    Maybe President Obama will have earned his Nobel Peace Prize by the time this is over.