Our Saudi allies have different goals than we do

Punditry means never having to say you’re sorry, or really suffer any consequences for being bad at your job at all. I am not a pundit, though, and so I feel like I need to go back and straighten something up. Back when the Saudis started showing their displeasure with American policy in the Middle East, I wrote that it seemed like they were really on about our lack of action (i.e., bombing) with respect to Syria. Turns out that was wrong; they’re really intensely agitated about the Iran negotiations, and it’s driving almost everything they do in the region, particularly their interventions in support of Sunnis in Bahrain and Syria. What I didn’t realize at the time was how long back-channel talks had been going on between the US and Iran, let alone the fact that that Saudis were aware enough that these talks were taking place to snitch to Israel about them. Obviously this bee has been in the Saudi bonnet for a while, then.

While we’re on the subject, it’s worth noting again that the Saudis are not really pulling in the same direction as the US is on any front right now (and that’s certainly within their rights, but we should understand that it’s happening), and they are particularly at cross purposes with us, and their new BFF Israel, when it comes to Iran.

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Islamic History, Part 15: the Second Fitna (680-692) and, finally, some stability

Islamic History Series

Early Islamic history is a mess. And here I don’t mean that the study of early Islamic history is a mess, although it is, as we’ve already talked about. But even if we just stick to the traditional narrative, we are now approaching a half-century since the death of Muhammad and already we’ve seen three caliphs assassinated and a full-on civil war. In fact, one of the points in favor of the accuracy of the traditional narrative, it seems to me, is that it doesn’t shy away from talking about what a mess the early period was. If people were just making the story up whole-cloth in the 8th century, they’d have had no reason to write it this way and every reason to write it as a much more placid tale of the birth of a new universal faith. But, of course, those Arab historians were writing back into the early period of the faith to try to explain the divisions they saw all around them, not because they had an accurate representation of the past from which to work, so neither can we simply rely on their narrative. However, on the other other hand, those divisions that the later Arab historians saw all around them had to come from somewhere, which does suggest that the early days of Islam were chaotic.

One of the big criticisms of the traditional narrative by revisionist historians is that it’s implausible to believe that the Islamic state emerged fully formed out of Arabia in the 630s. My response to that is, I mean, what do you think the early histories are talking about when they write that three of the first four caliphs were assassinated and there was one civil war within 25 years of Muhammad’s death and a second within 50 years (and, spoiler alert, another within a little over 100 years)? They’re talking about the very difficult, very chaotic, and probably very violent process of forming that Islamic state. It didn’t emerge fully formed out of Arabia in the 630s, and if you read the traditional narrative with a little care, then you can see that it’s telling you so. Many of the details are probably fudged in some way, but the core of the story rings pretty true.

That said, we come now to Islamic history at the end of the First Fitna, the death of the first Umayyad Caliph, Muʿawiyah, in 680, and the accession of his son, Yazid I (d. 683). Continue reading

Jeffrey Goldberg explains stuff at you

When looking back on how and why this country talked itself into invading Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein, despite the absence of either a justification or a plan for the day after Saddam was overthrown, you have to reckon with two categories of war cheerleaders. There are the folks who just wanted a war with Iraq and didn’t care what crap they had to sling to make it happen: mushroom cloud, al-Qaeda, he gassed his own people (which we tried to downplay at the time), anthrax, Prague and 9/11, whatever, don’t bother me with the details, they’ll greet us as liberators except maybe not in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat. In other words, the bad guys. Then there are the folks who swallowed the crap that the bad guys were making up, the dupes, or the useful idiots. These included leading media figures (*cough*SaintTimRussert*cough*) and pundits, most of Congress, the odd celebrity here and there, and plenty of folks in the think-tank/public intellectual crowd (although some of the think-tank types clearly belong in the “bad guy” category).

Some of the useful idiots may not have believed all the nonsense about Iraq, but they found a way to believe just enough of it and even to convince themselves that they were still right all these years later. Some may never have believed any of it but went along so they wouldn’t be seen as Unserious Peaceniks. But some of them swallowed all of it, whole, like, for example, Jeffrey Goldberg. Let’s see: use of poison gas, nuclear program, ties to al-Qaeda, oh hey, he also talked about the morality of the invasion. Yep, he ticked off every box on the useful idiot checklist, and then unquestioningly passed his idiocy on to his readers. Goldberg so thoroughly absorbed and broadcast every piece of BS that was produced in the run-up to the war that, if I weren’t trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, I’d say he was actually a bad guy and not just a useful idiot.

Anyway, Goldberg was so chastened by his complete failure to be right about anything on Iraq that he retired from punditry and retreated from public life forever, arguing that there was no conceivable reason why anybody should be exposed to his opinions ever again. Continue reading

If these are the people opposing the Iran deal…

It’s never a good idea to jump to conclusions, particularly about, say, a temporary deal to slow the Iranian nuclear program while negotiations continue on a permanent settlement. But when you see the kinds of folks who instantly lined up against the deal as the ink was drying on the paper, it’s hard not to leap to the conclusion that this must have been a pretty good outcome. Many other places have covered the criticisms in detail; for example, Media Matters has a nice collection of right-wing media types beclowning themselves, and there’s Juan Cole on the interesting but completely unsurprising fact that most of the US politicians opposing this deal are the same halfwits who thought that invading Iraq was a fabulous idea:

In 2003, the Neocon chickenhawks, most of whom had never worn a uniform or had a parent who did, joked that “everyone wants to go to Baghdad; real men want to go to Tehran.” When people have to talk about being “real men,” it is a pretty good sign that they are 98-pound weaklings.

The “everyone” who wanted to go to Baghdad was actually just the Neocons and their fellow travelers. Most of the latter were hoodwinked by the Neocon/Cheney misinformation campaign blaming Saddam Hussein of Iraq for 9/11. A majority of Democratic representatives in the lower house of Congress voted against the idea of going to war. The Iraq War, trumped up on false pretenses and mainly to protect the militant right wing in Israel from having a credible military rival in the region and to put Iraqi petroleum on the market to weaken Saudi Arabia, cost the United States nearly 5000 troops, hundreds more Veterans working as contractors, and probably $3 or $4 trillion– money we do not have since our economy has collapsed and hasn’t recovered except for wealthy stockholders. Perhaps George W. Bush could paint for us some dollars so that we can remember what they used to look like when we had them in our pockets instead of his billionaire friends (many of them war profiteers) having them in theirs.

There seem to be four main categories of criticism, apart from the imbeciles running around incoherently screaming “MUNICH 1938” at the top of their lungs. All of them are very premature at best and willfully ignorant at worst. Let’s take a quick look at them, in no particular order:

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BREAKING (no, seriously): Short-term Iranian nuke deal reached

There’s a deal in place for a six-month slowdown of the Iranian nuclear program and what looks like a rollback of the elements of that program that could lead to the development of a weapon. There’s going to be a massive amount of complaining about this deal on the part of people who a) don’t know what’s in it, b) don’t care what’s in it and just want a reason to go after Obama, c) don’t care what’s in it and are desperate to see America and/or Israel bomb some Iranians, d) know what’s in it but refuse to wait and see if it gets implemented, and e) belong to more than one of the above groups. The full fact sheet on the deal is all over the internet, for example here. Highlights:

  • Iran must stop enriching uranium above the 5% mark, the high end of the scale for uranium used in civilian reactors and must dismantle their infrastructure for enriching uranium beyond this level
  • Iran must eliminate its existing stockpile of 20% enriched uranium, which is just a step below weapons-grade, either by diluting it or converting it to oxide
  • Iran will stop installing centrifuges and will pledge not to use much of its centrifuge capacity (particularly its more modern centrifuges that can enrich uranium to weapons-grade more easily than older models)
  • Iran will freeze its stockpile of low enriched (3.5%-5%) uranium and convert any newly enriched uranium to oxide
  • Iran will halt construction of and production of fuel for the heavy-water Arak reactor, which could generate plutonium if it is allowed to come on-line
  • Iran will grant the IAEA substantially greater access to all nuclear facilities, and the IAEA will monitor compliance along with the P5+1
  • The P5+1 agree to a 6 month hold on any new sanctions as long as Iran abides by the above conditions
  • Certain sanctions on precious metals, Iran’s auto industry, and petrochemicals will be lifted
  • Iran will be allowed to repatriate some $4.2 billion in oil revenues
  • The P5+1 will facilitate Iranian access to humanitarian products (food, medicine, etc.), which are already exempt from sanctions; unclear what “facilitate” means
  • The vast majority of the sanctions remain in place

I’m just Some Dude on the Internet, but it looks to me like a long-term deal could be made along the lines of trading an Iranian “right” to enrich uranium to the 3.5%-5% level for a complete abandonment of the Arak reactor and an ongoing Iranian commitment to transparency with respect to monitoring. The P5+1 won’t explicitly acknowledge Iran’s right to enrich, they just won’t stop them from doing it. Nobody explicitly acknowledges that countries like Germany and Japan have a “right” to enrich uranium either; they just do it. Nor do we explicitly acknowledge that Israel has nuclear weapons; they just do and nobody in the West talks about it. This short term deal seems to punt on completely shutting down Iran’s ability to enrich, but it does, significantly, seem to extract a major concession on Arak.

Obviously the details on paper are not nearly as important as what actually happens over the next 6 months, but this actually seems like more than what anybody could have reasonably expected out of this deal; the commitment to eliminate, not just freeze, Iran’s stockpile of 20% enriched uranium, and to shut down any advancement on the Arak reactor, are major concessions.