Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Watch the Themes, Not the Headlines

By Barry Rubin

A basic principle is to look at the underlying interests and perceptions of specific governments and states, not the immediate headlines, if you want to know what countries or mass movements are going to do. Over and over, however, we see stories that prove false in a few days yet probably leave a lasting impression to the contrary on readers.

For example we keep seeing phony trend stories can be said about Hamas or Hizballah moderating, Hamas and the PA reconciling, a great new deal offered by Iran over the nuclear issue, and many other such items.

That thought is prompted by a recent flurry of stories that the Palestinian Authority is about to return to negotiations with Israel. In fact, for reasons I’ve outlined repeatedly in this blog (relating mainly to the radical nature of internal Palestinian politics) that isn’t going to happen for a long time.

Another story we keep hearing is about how Russia or China are about to support real sanctions on Iran. Yet every time an official from those countries makes a statement it is to the contrary. Here’s the latest from Oleg Rozhkov, a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official. And note he is very clear:

"We are not got going to work on sanctions or measures which could lead to the political or economic or financial isolation of this country. What relation to non-proliferation is there in forbidding banking activities with Iran? This is a financial blockade. And oil and gas. These sanctions are aimed only at paralyzing the country and paralyzing the regime."

And that’s a regime with which Russia is quite friendly.

I just wrote a piece pointing out that since the Obama administration wants the EU to endorse the sanctions, it needs a unanimous vote there. This means that countries like Luxemburg and Sweden can now block, or water down, sanctions. Yet it doesn't end even there! As Der Spiegel explains, reporting on what EU leaders are saying:

"But the West also wants to secure the backing of countries such as Brazil, Turkey and the Gulf states for sanctions. That would make it harder for Iran's leadership to argue that it's being victimized by a `Western conspiracy' or the `vassals of Israel.'"

This is crazy. Nothing will make it harder for Iran's leadership to make such arguments because they will do so no matter what happens! How long will it take to get all these countries on board? How minimal they will demand sanctions to be! And Turkey is now practically Iran's closest ally.

Here is a serious crisis where the Western states want to avoid Iran getting nuclear weapons or a war erupting to stop that from happening. Yet they are either frozen into near passivity or want to do less than the minimum and throw away the time available for peaceful and effective action. True, they are somewhat affected by a desire not to lose money from trade with Iran, yet Britain, France, and Germany along with others are ready to move forward.

What is lacking? While a number of elements can be cited the number-one item on the list should be: the lack of American leadership. I don't here mean some kind of bullying or ordering, but I do mean a serious type of determination, prodding, and belief that the United States should lead even if not everyone is in the consensus.

This situation reminds me of an old Romanian joke used to explain about corruption. The lights are turned out, a piece of ice is passed around for a while, and then the lights are turned back on. "See," says the host, everyone's hands are wet but there's nothing left.

So what will be left of sanctions and when will there be any? Not much and not soon.

And what is going to be left of American leadership?.Same as above.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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