Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Was there a "Natural Growth" settlements deal?/ History and Iran's internal struggle

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Update from AIJAC

June 26, 2009
Number 06/09 #10

This Update leads with an important entry into the debate about the US demand that Israel halt the "natural growth" of West Bank settlements. Elliot Abrams, the head of Middle East affairs at the US National Security Council during the Bush Administration, writes that it is true, as Israel has argued, that there was an agreement between Washington and Israel that Israel was permitted to allow building within the existing boundaries of existing settlements. He says this agreement was part of an American quid pro quo for the risks Israel's Sharon Government took in withdrawing completely from Gaza, and takes issue with Obama Administration officials who claim that no such agreement existed. For Abram's full recollection of what the agreement was, and argument about its implications, CLICK HERE. Interestingly, Abrams is being joined in his argument that the Obama Administration's focus on freezing "natural growth" of settlements is misguided by Aaron David Miller, a former senior official dealing with the peace process from the Clinton Administration. Also putting his recollection of the settlement agreement is Sharon's former Chief of Staff Dov Weisglass. Arguing that no such agreement was finalised is former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer.

Next up is some additional background to help understand the situation in Iran, with first of all, an interesting review of the history of protest movements and revolutions in Iran from a government analyst and author specialising in that country, Steven R. Ward. Ward pays particular attention to the role the Iranian military has played in either repressing or assisting past regime change in Iran, starting from the revolution of 1909. He also looks at the mistakes past Iranian governments have made which led to their overthrow. For this complete piece, CLICK HERE. In addition, some ideas on how the Iranian Revolutionary Guard might be "flipped" in the current wave of protests comes from Amanda Silverman of the New Republic.

Finally, writer Christopher Hitchens enters the argument about the danger of outsider governments feeding the ability of the Iranian regime to blame the unrest on foreigners by speaking out in support of anti-regime protesters. Drawing on his own experiences in Iran, he argues that such conspiratorial arguments will be used extensively by the regime in Iran no matter what outsiders do. However, he points out that among the literary and educated segments of the population, such conspiracy theories are already a running joke and probably serve more to make the regime look ridiculous than help their cause. For Hitchens' detailed look at how Iranians view the frequent claims about external "interference" by the US and especially Britain, CLICK HERE.

Readers may also be interested in:

  • Israeli academic expert Meir Litvak looks at the intra-regime struggles which are partly behind the Iranian unrest, as does another Israeli academic, Ephraim Kam. Litvak also argues that it looks like the regime is getting the upper hand over the opposition, and looks at why.
  • More optimistic is American strategic expert Edward Luttwak, who argues that, regardless of the outcome of the current unrest, the regime has been so weakened it cannot last many more years.
  • What the Arab world is saying about the Iranian unrest. Meanwhile, an Israeli radio show is captivating anti-regime Iranians at the moment.
  • Both British columnist Anne Applebaum and Israeli columnist Dudi Cohen comment on the important role women are playing in the Iranian protest movement.
  • European neo-Nazis salute Ahmadinejad

Hillary Is Wrong About the Settlements

The U.S. and Israel reached a clear understanding about natural growth.

By  ELLIOTT ABRAMS

Wall Street Journal,
26 June 2009

Despite fervent denials by Obama administration officials, there were indeed agreements between Israel and the United States regarding the growth of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. As the Obama administration has made the settlements issue a major bone of contention between Israel and the U.S., it is necessary that we review the recent history.

In the spring of 2003, U.S. officials (including me) held wide-ranging discussions with then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem. The "Roadmap for Peace" between Israel and the Palestinians had been written. President George W. Bush had endorsed Palestinian statehood, but only if the Palestinians eliminated terror. He had broken with Yasser Arafat, but Arafat still ruled in the Palestinian territories. Israel had defeated the intifada, so what was next?
  Getty Images

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, President George W. Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Jordan's King Abdullah, June 4, 2003.

We asked Mr. Sharon about freezing the West Bank settlements. I recall him asking, by way of reply, what did that mean for the settlers? They live there, he said, they serve in elite army units, and they marry. Should he tell them to have no more children, or move?

We discussed some approaches: Could he agree there would be no additional settlements? New construction only inside settlements, without expanding them physically? Could he agree there would be no additional land taken for settlements?

As we talked several principles emerged. The father of the settlements now agreed that limits must be placed on the settlements; more fundamentally, the old foe of the Palestinians could -- under certain conditions -- now agree to Palestinian statehood.

In June 2003, Mr. Sharon stood alongside Mr. Bush, King Abdullah II of Jordan, and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas at Aqaba, Jordan, and endorsed Palestinian statehood publicly: "It is in Israel's interest not to govern the Palestinians but for the Palestinians to govern themselves in their own state. A democratic Palestinian state fully at peace with Israel will promote the long-term security and well-being of Israel as a Jewish state." At the end of that year he announced his intention to pull out of the Gaza Strip.

The U.S. government supported all this, but asked Mr. Sharon for two more things. First, that he remove some West Bank settlements; we wanted Israel to show that removing them was not impossible. Second, we wanted him to pull out of Gaza totally -- including every single settlement and the "Philadelphi Strip" separating Gaza from Egypt, even though holding on to this strip would have prevented the smuggling of weapons to Hamas that was feared and has now come to pass. Mr. Sharon agreed on both counts.

These decisions were political dynamite, as Mr. Sharon had long predicted to us. In May 2004, his Likud Party rejected his plan in a referendum, handing him a resounding political defeat. In June, the Cabinet approved the withdrawal from Gaza, but only after Mr. Sharon fired two ministers and allowed two others to resign. His majority in the Knesset was now shaky.

After completing the Gaza withdrawal in August 2005, he called in November for a dissolution of the Knesset and for early elections. He also said he would leave Likud to form a new centrist party. The political and personal strain was very great. Four weeks later he suffered the first of two strokes that have left him in a coma.

Throughout, the Bush administration gave Mr. Sharon full support for his actions against terror and on final status issues. On April 14, 2004, Mr. Bush handed Mr. Sharon a letter saying that there would be no "right of return" for Palestinian refugees. Instead, the president said, "a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel."

On the major settlement blocs, Mr. Bush said, "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949." Several previous administrations had declared all Israeli settlements beyond the "1967 borders" to be illegal. Here Mr. Bush dropped such language, referring to the 1967 borders -- correctly -- as merely the lines where the fighting stopped in 1949, and saying that in any realistic peace agreement Israel would be able to negotiate keeping those major settlements.

On settlements we also agreed on principles that would permit some continuing growth. Mr. Sharon stated these clearly in a major policy speech in December 2003: "Israel will meet all its obligations with regard to construction in the settlements. There will be no construction beyond the existing construction line, no expropriation of land for construction, no special economic incentives and no construction of new settlements."

Ariel Sharon did not invent those four principles. They emerged from discussions with American officials and were discussed by Messrs. Sharon and Bush at their Aqaba meeting in June 2003.

They were not secret, either. Four days after the president's letter, Mr. Sharon's Chief of Staff Dov Weissglas wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that "I wish to reconfirm the following understanding, which had been reached between us: 1. Restrictions on settlement growth: within the agreed principles of settlement activities, an effort will be made in the next few days to have a better definition of the construction line of settlements in Judea & Samaria."

Stories in the press also made it clear that there were indeed "agreed principles." On Aug. 21, 2004 the New York Times reported that "the Bush administration . . . now supports construction of new apartments in areas already built up in some settlements, as long as the expansion does not extend outward."

In recent weeks, American officials have denied that any agreement on settlements existed. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated on June 17 that "in looking at the history of the Bush administration, there were no informal or oral enforceable agreements. That has been verified by the official record of the administration and by the personnel in the positions of responsibility."

These statements are incorrect. Not only were there agreements, but the prime minister of Israel relied on them in undertaking a wrenching political reorientation -- the dissolution of his government, the removal of every single Israeli citizen, settlement and military position in Gaza, and the removal of four small settlements in the West Bank. This was the first time Israel had ever removed settlements outside the context of a peace treaty, and it was a major step.

It is true that there was no U.S.-Israel "memorandum of understanding," which is presumably what Mrs. Clinton means when she suggests that the "official record of the administration" contains none. But she would do well to consult documents like the Weissglas letter, or the notes of the Aqaba meeting, before suggesting that there was no meeting of the minds.

Mrs. Clinton also said there were no "enforceable" agreements. This is a strange phrase. How exactly would Israel enforce any agreement against an American decision to renege on it? Take it to the International Court in The Hague?

Regardless of what Mrs. Clinton has said, there was a bargained-for exchange. Mr. Sharon was determined to break the deadlock, withdraw from Gaza, remove settlements -- and confront his former allies on Israel's right by abandoning the "Greater Israel" position to endorse Palestinian statehood and limits on settlement growth. He asked for our support and got it, including the agreement that we would not demand a total settlement freeze.

For reasons that remain unclear, the Obama administration has decided to abandon the understandings about settlements reached by the previous administration with the Israeli government. We may be abandoning the deal now, but we cannot rewrite history and make believe it did not exist.

Mr. Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, handled Middle East affairs at the National Security Council from 2001 to 2009.

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A History of Violence

What previous protests and revolutions in Iran can teach us about the current crisis.


Steven R. Ward,

 The New Republic  Published: Wednesday, June 24, 2009


On the eve of the centennial of Iran's first modern revolution, the country is experiencing the latest in a series of popular eruptions against an oppressive government. It was 100 years ago this month that Iranian freedom fighters were marching on Tehran to depose an autocrat they could no longer abide. By mid-July 1909, this army of varied tribal, ethnic, and secular democratic mujahedin would capture the capitol and send the Qajar monarch, Muhammad Ali Shah, packing to Russia, placing his young son on the throne of a revived but still infant constitutional monarchy. Iran's early democracy, however, expired within two years because of reactionary pressures and the revolutionaries' inability to live up to their principles, a fact that should instill some caution regarding attempts to discern the many twists and turns such challenges to an existing order in Iran can take.

Since the late 19th century, the major civil disturbances that have repeatedly roiled Iran have shared a number of features that can put the prospects of the current anti-government demonstrations into perspective. Though there are many factors that have influenced the outcomes of past Iranian protests--including the strength of opposition leaders and complaints about foreign domination --history indicates that the most important factor affecting the success of nationwide dissent is the perceived strength of Iran's security forces. Unfortunately, this history does not bode well for the Iranians now demanding a greater voice in how they are governed.

The Qajar-era Iranian military, who unsuccessfully tried to fend off the assault on Tehran in 1909, was under-funded, poorly trained and equipped, badly led, and often sympathetic with the mujahedin fighting for the constitution. Though the army grew stronger in the following decades, the short-lived autonomous republics of Gilan in 1920-21 and Azerbaijan and Mahabad (Iranian Kurdistan) in 1945-46 were able to overcome the Iranian armed forces with the support of Soviet Red Army units.

By the time that the last shah of Iran, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, battled Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1970s, the Imperial Iranian Armed Forces were large, well-armed, and lavishly funded. But they were undermined by the vacillating monarch's shifts between repression and accommodation, which included the punishment of some security officials for their harsh measures. The shah's undercutting of his generals aggravated their already poor leadership and hurt the morale of the junior officers and enlisted men.

More important, Khomeini's revolutionaries used an array of clever tactics to neutralize the armed forces. Successful attacks on the security forces showed that the regime was vulnerable, and often intentionally provoked government reactions that incited more unrest. Khomeini also ordered his followers to embrace the military rank-and-file and bring them to the revolutionaries' side through fraternization and propaganda. Additionally, in more of a choke hold than an embrace, intimidation and psychological warfare were used to undermine the troops' loyalty. There were echoes of both of these tactics during the fourth day of this month's protests when some of the demonstrators offered flowers to security force personnel shortly before other protestors attacked a paramilitary base.

In the past, the armed forces have not uniformly supported the ruling Islamic Republic. For much of the 1990s, the senior commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the main pillar of the clerical government, could not be certain of the rank-and-file's loyalty. During anti-regime riots in Qazvin in 1994, for example, some IRGC units refused to carry out commands to use force to reestablish order. And most of the security services, sharing the views of their families and peers, seemed to have supported former president Mohammad Khatami, the moderate cleric who sought to reform Iran's government. In the 1997 presidential election, for example, they voted for Khatami in percentages similar to the rest of the country.

In response to this lack of loyalty, the regime developed various new units, including special male and female Basij paramilitary units, to handle violent unrest. The clerics relied on poor Iranians--who were still beholden to the regime for subsidies, work, and religious guidance--to staff these units, which have been trained and equipped for riot control and containing internal unrest. These Basij units, which back up the national police service, are the firebreak against serious regime threatening unrest.

Despite regime efforts since the 1999 student riots to inoculate the security services against divided loyalties, the prospect cannot be discounted. The current IRGC commander, Mohammad Ali Jafari, publicly announced last year a reform program for the Guard that aimed to revive its revolutionary spirit, and an official IRGC statement on the eve of the election rejected the suggestion that there was a gap between Guard commanders and their personnel. But leading up to the election, 59 former senior IRGC officers publicly announced their support for presidential candidate and current opposition leader Mir Hosein Mousavi, and former Guard commander and defeated conservative presidential candidate Mohsen Rezai has joined Mousavi in demanding that the election results be overturned.

Finally, throughout Iran's modern history civil disturbances have achieved the most when the government leadership was perceived as fragile or uncertain. Muzzafar al-Din Shah, the initial target of the 1905-1911 revolution, was dying when he agreed to Iran's first constitution and legislature in 1906. The celebrated former prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq, who won renown by besting the British and nationalizing Iran's oil over the shah's objections in the early 1950s, had become increasingly autocratic by 1953, which had estranged him from much of his political base and left him vulnerable to a coup by his pro-shah enemies in the military and among the Iranian elite. Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was sick with cancer and an increasingly indecisive leader as he faced off against the iron-willed Khomeini.

Iran's current leader, the 70-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has enjoyed the strong backing of the IRGC as he has consolidated power over the past 20 years. The overt support for him shown by the security forces will be one of the most important indicators of where he stands with the Iranian people--and, in turn, will provide some insight into how bold they can be in pressing for change.

Steven R. Ward is a senior Middle East analyst for the U.S. government. He is the author of Immortal: A Military History of Iran and Its Armed Forces (Georgetown University Press, 2009). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of any U.S. government agency.

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Persian Paranoia

Iranian leaders will always believe Anglo-Saxons are plotting against them.

By Christopher Hitchens

Slate.com, Posted Monday, June 22, 2009, at 12:43 PM ET

I have twice had the privilege of sitting, poorly shaved, on the floor and attending the Friday prayers that the Iranian theocracy sponsors each week on the campus of Tehran University. As everybody knows, this dreary, nasty ceremony is occasionally enlivened when the scrofulous preacher leads the crowd in a robotic chant of Marg Bar Amrika!—"Death to America!" As nobody will be surprised to learn, this is generally followed by a cry of Marg Bar Israel! And it's by no means unknown for the three-beat bleat of this two-minute hate to have yet a third version: Marg Bar Ingilis!

Some commentators noticed that as "Supreme Leader" Ali Khamenei viciously slammed the door on all possibilities of reform at last Friday's prayers, he laid his greatest emphasis on the third of these incantations. "The most evil of them all," he droned, "is the British government." But the real significance of his weird accusation has generally been missed.

One of the signs of Iran's underdevelopment is the culture of rumor and paranoia that attributes all ills to the manipulation of various demons and satans. And, of course, the long and rich history of British imperial intervention in Persia does provide some support for the notion. But you have no idea how deep is the primitive belief that it is the Anglo-Saxons—more than the CIA, more even than the Jews—who are the puppet masters of everything that happens in Iran.

The best-known and best-selling satirical novel in the Persian language is My Uncle Napoleon, by Iraj Pezeshkzad, which describes the ridiculous and eventually hateful existence of a family member who subscribes to the "Brit Plot" theory of Iranian history. The novel was published in 1973 and later made into a fabulously popular Iranian TV series. Both the printed and televised versions were promptly banned by the ayatollahs after 1979 but survive in samizdat form. Since then, one of the leading clerics of the so-called Guardian Council, Ahmad Jannati, has announced in a nationwide broadcast that the bombings in London on July 7, 2005, were the "creation" of the British government itself. I strongly recommend that you get hold of the Modern Library paperback of Pezeshkzad's novel, produced in 2006, and read it from start to finish while paying special attention to the foreword by Azar Nafisi (author of Reading Lolita in Tehran) and the afterword by the author himself, who says:
In his fantasies, the novel's central character sees the hidden hand of British imperialism behind every event that has happened in Iran until the recent past. For the first time, the people of Iran have clearly seen the absurdity of this belief, although they tend to ascribe it to others and not to themselves, and have been able to laugh at it. And this has, finally, had a salutary influence. Nowadays, in Persian, the phrase "My Uncle Napoleon" is used everywhere to indicate a belief that British plots are behind all events, and is accompanied by ridicule and laughter. ... The only section of society who attacked it was the Mullahs. ... [T]hey said I had been ordered to write the book by imperialists, and that I had done so in order to destroy the roots of religion in the people of Iran.
Fantastic as these claims may have seemed three years ago, they sound mild when compared with the ravings and gibberings that are now issued from the Khamenei pulpit. Here is a man who hasn't even heard that his favorite conspiracy theory is a long-standing joke among his own people. And these ravings and gibberings have real-world consequences of which at least three may be mentioned:
  1. There is nothing at all that any Western country can do to avoid the charge of intervening in Iran's internal affairs. The deep belief that everything—especially anything in English—is already and by definition an intervention is part of the very identity and ideology of the theocracy.
  2. It is a mistake to assume that the ayatollahs, cynical and corrupt as they may be, are acting rationally. They are frequently in the grip of archaic beliefs and fears that would make a stupefied medieval European peasant seem mentally sturdy and resourceful by comparison.
  3. The tendency of outside media to check the temperature of the clerics, rather than consult the writers and poets of the country, shows our own cultural backwardness in regrettably sharp relief. Anyone who had been reading Pezeshkzad and Nafisi, or talking to their students and readers in Tabriz and Esfahan and Mashad, would have been able to avoid the awful embarrassment by which everything that has occurred on the streets of Iran during recent days has come as one surprise after another to most of our uncultured "experts."
That last observation also applies to the Obama administration. Want to take a noninterventionist position? All right, then, take a noninterventionist position. This would mean not referring to Khamenei in fawning tones as the supreme leader and not calling Iran itself by the tyrannical title of "the Islamic republic." But be aware that nothing will stop the theocrats from slandering you for interfering anyway. Also try to bear in mind that one day you will have to face the young Iranian democrats who risked their all in the battle and explain to them just what you were doing when they were being beaten and gassed. (Hint: Don't make your sole reference to Iranian dictatorship an allusion to a British-organized coup in 1953; the mullahs think that it proves their main point, and this generation has more immediate enemies to confront.)

There is then the larger question of the Iranian theocracy and its continual, arrogant intervention in our affairs: its export of violence and cruelty and lies to Lebanon and Palestine and Iraq and its unashamed defiance of the United Nations, the European Union, and the International Atomic Energy Agency on the nontrivial matter of nuclear weapons. I am sure that I was as impressed as anybody by our president's decision to quote Martin Luther King—rather late in the week—on the arc of justice and the way in which it eventually bends. It was just that in a time of crisis and urgency he was citing the wrong King text (the right one is to be found in the "Letter From a Birmingham Jail"), and it was also as if he were speaking as the president of Iceland or Uruguay rather than as president of these United States.

Coexistence with a nuclearized, fascistic theocracy in Iran is impossible even in the short run. The mullahs understand this with perfect clarity.
Why can't we?

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, now out in paperback.

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