The Iranian Conundrum

Much has been written, and will continue to be written, about the recently concluded agreement with Iran on behalf of the P5+1 (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China plus Germany) (also participating was the High Representative of the European Union) concerning curtailment of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.  Most of the talk is whether or not it is a “good deal” or a “bad deal.”  I do not think that such a simplistic approach does anyone any good and certainly does not lead to an understanding of the complexities of this pact — and it is indeed complex.  (You may read the entire original text here.) Most of the agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA), consists of annexes of a highly technical nature.  I am not a nuclear physicist so I cannot authoritatively comment on its intricacies, but many, many, many (emphasis on purpose) nuclear physicists and other arms control experts call it the most comprehensive arms control agreement ever.  There is very little — no agreement is perfect — technical wiggle room.

According to the signatories, the deal increases Iran’s “break out” time (how long until they could produce a nuclear bomb) from about three months to at least one year.  It also significantly reduces their stockpiles of enriched uranium (needed to make a bomb), cuts Iran’s centrifuges by two-thirds (needed to make more enriched uranium), precludes the production of plutonium (for really big bombs) and opens up existing facilities for international inspection.

The agreement also puts the restrictions and inspections in place for ten to twenty-five years and allows for re-imposing sanctions at any time for any violation.  Note that the inspections in some forms are in place for twenty-five years and in other cases, since Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, forever.  Please note that Israel has nuclear weapons and is not a signatory nation of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, along with India, Pakistan and North Korea.

To me, as I understand them, the technical details of the JPCOA are sound.  I have heard very little criticism of the actual technical aspects of the agreement.  They were after all, primarily negotiated by the world’s foremost experts, including our own Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, a world recognized expert and MIT professor.

The real question to ask is this — is the JPCOA good policy?  That is a more difficult question to answer. I happen to think that it is, but it needs to be taken in context.  Before explaining that context, I must express my disappointment that many of our leaders in Congress had a knee jerk reaction to the agreement before they even knew the details of what was in it.  Coincident with the announcement of an agreement, criticism rained down on the president.  Typical of that reaction was Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) who said within minutes of the conclusion of the negotiations, “Given everything I’ve seen so far, this is a bad deal. It paves the way for a nuclear Iran.”  By his own admission he had not reviewed the details of the agreement.  His reaction was mild compared to some others, and all paled in comparison to those of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R-Israel) who said, “From the initial reports we can already conclude that this agreement is a historic mistake.” He made that statement before the text was released and later he admitted that he had not yet read it.

Some in Congress oppose the JPCOA only because Israel opposes it.  As I’ve written before, Israel is a close ally and friend of the United States.  We need to protect and support Israel.  However, the United States should put its interests first, and not undermine them only because Israel is opposed.  I guarantee that Israel would, and has, put its interests above those of the United States and taken actions that were in their best interests, but opposed to those of the United States.  Do not oppose the JPCOA  “just because” Prime Minister Netanyahu says it is a bad deal.

It is entirely conceivable that policy makers in the United States and elsewhere legitimately do not think that the JPCOA is good policy.  But I sure wish they would at least read it and understand it before going public with blanket statements that it is historically bad.  Many of the critics of the negotiations said that “a bad deal is worse than no deal.”  What they really meant to say was that “any deal is worse than no deal.”  I disagree.

The hard part is to put the JPCOA in the total context of Middle East policy.  The focus for the P5+1 was eliminating the ability of Iran to produce a nuclear weapon this year.  At worst, they delayed it for ten to twenty years.  At best, they delayed it forever. Iran’s focus was lifting the sanctions.  They got that assuming that they comply with the JPCOA.  They were not negotiating the end to terrorism, national ambitions, the recognition of Israel by Iran or the host of other criticisms aimed at the negotiations because those things were not achieved.  They were not on the table and arguably we would not have any agreement if they were.

Likewise no P5+1 participant is “trusting” the Iranians.  There are very strict inspection regimes with very dire consequences for Iran should they be found in violation.  We need to be realistic about what can and cannot be achieved at the negotiating table.  And the U.S. Congress needs to recognize that these were not bi-lateral negotiations.  If the rest of the world wants to lift sanctions against Iran (and both Russia and China cannot wait to enter the Iranian market), we will have little leverage to stop it.

That said, many of you have heard me say for many years that Iran is one of the baddest actors in the world.  Prior to ISIS, the vast majority of terrorist acts in the Middle East and elsewhere can be directly or indirectly traced to Iran.  Currently, they are working hard to establish themselves as a regional power in the Middle East with thoughts of domination in that part of the world.  We need to stop them and we need to keep up the pressure on other nations to stop them.  We must.  That, however, is a different issue than stopping their nuclear weapons program.

The JPCAO only makes sense in the context of a comprehensive step-by-step plan in the Middle East to box in Iran and turn it back towards being a productive member of the world society.  The JPCOA is, in my mind, only the first of many steps.  There was no magic wand that could solve all of the problems with and about Iran in one fell swoop.  Just not going to happen.  However, as a first step, it is important.  As we have seen with China, Russia and other previous foes of the west, slow and steady is the answer.  Constant pressure needs to be applied and we must be relentless in our pursuit of national policy.  However, just as we have seen with China and Russia, we will make progress on some fronts and we will have conflict on others.  The United States needs to take the long view and put in place policies that bolster our friends and allies, oppose Iranian adventurism and exploitation, and enhance our national security.  The JPCOA helps to do that by taking the threat of nuclear weapons out of the calculus.

When one takes a step back, it is entirely possible that the world may not know the ramifications of the JPCOA for many years.  That is a tough gamble to take.  However, from all that I have read, it is a gamble worth taking because it is not irreversible and it has large dividends when it succeeds.

Iran is and will remain a conundrum.  We will only make head way in the area by engaging them.

Moving On

On Friday, the Confederate battle flag was lowered for the final time on the statehouse grounds of South Carolina.  Huzzah!  I am glad that the majority of South Carolinians rallied to get the state legislature, spurred by Governor Nikki Haley (R), to pass legislation that caused its relocation to a place where it belongs — in a museum.

Unfortunately, those that want to see the flag fly at the statehouse accused South Carolina politicians of bowing to “political correctness” in removing the flag.  They claim that it is not a symbol of treason or slavery but rather a celebration of their heritage.  Many brave and valiant Confederate soldiers died under that banner and, many claim, that is what they celebrate when it is flown.  I merely point out that many brave and valiant people have died protecting their homes fighting for causes that were evil. World War II comes to mind. I do not see the citizens of France flying the Vichy flag as part of their heritage, for example.

The Civil War is part of the history of the United States.  (Note that it is the United States.)  As such museums, books and other chroniclers of our history should depict the various elements of that war. However, a secessionist flag should not fly on government buildings. Ours is a “government for the people, of the people and by the people”.  Not just for some people.  All the people.  I have written on this blog in the past about my lack of understanding as to why people still demand to fly the Confederate flag. I hear what they say, but I don’t buy it if our nation is truly united.  Divided perhaps by politics, but not by our values as a nation.  I really did not get the continued demand by various state governments to fly it.  Perhaps that argument is finally behind us. I also do not get why individuals continue to fly it, but that is their choice and it is a freedom of speech issue. They can do so if they desire, but I hope that they truly understand its meaning.

Symbols are symbols for a reason.  They stand for something, otherwise none of us would care about them.  The symbol of the United States is our national flag.  There is no “southern” flag and there is no “northern” flag.  There is only one flag — the symbol of our collective nation.

Perhaps some believe that the Confederate flag now stands only for states’  rights. I do not really buy that argument either.  I thought that since we have individual state flags, that those would be the symbols of one’s home state and the government located there.

Others argue that white supremacists and organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan usurped the Confederate flag and that it really was not a symbol of racism or slavery.  For the sake of discussion, I will say that it may have been “usurped” by white supremacists, but why does one think that they chose that symbol?  I would remind us all that the Confederate flags did not reappear on capital buildings and other state buildings in the South until the 60’s.  The nineteen sixties in response to changes in Civil Rights laws targeted at ending the Jim Crow era.

Those that argue that the Civil War was over states rights or the preservation of their economy or “way of life” are correct, in so far as they point out that the states rights issue, the economic issues, and the “way of life” issues were all based on slavery.  Whether individual Confederate or Union soldiers approved or disapproved or owned or did not own slaves is not relevant.  Slavery was the proximate cause of the war. The Missouri Compromise and the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 are the precursors to the war. The southern states wanted slavery to continue and to spread as new states entered the Union.  The northern states wanted to contain slavery to the South.  Indeed, one could almost argue that the Civil War was about states’ rights — northern states rights.  Specifically, their right not to return fugitive slaves to the slave owners.  The South Carolina Declaration of the Causes of Seceding States says it clearly.

But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia.

“Fugitives” of course are slaves.

Or this passage from the Texas version of the Declaration.

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

That in this free government *all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights* [emphasis in the original]; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.

There are other passages and numerous speeches from the time that make it clear that the southern states did secede from the Union over slavery.  To be fair, the people of that day were products of their times and circumstances.  I hesitate to put the values and knowledge of today up against those of the past when they did not have the same advantages to learn and understand all that we do today.  None-the-less, one cannot say that slavery was not the prime issue of the war.

I think my biggest problem with the Confederate flag as a symbol is that we should not re-fight, re-litigate, or rehash something settled 150 years ago.  We are united.  We are one nation.  I do not think that most people who fly the Confederate flag wish that the south had succeeded in breaking apart and forming their own nation.  I cannot imagine what our nation, indeed our world would be like had they succeeded.  That is my biggest stumbling block as to why people continue to “fight” the Civil War.  What do they think would be better had they won?

Some may think that I “hate” the south or do not understand it.  Not so.  I’ve lived in Texas, South Carolina, Virginia, Florida and Maryland — all south of the Mason-Dixon line — for a total of over 30 years as both a child and an adult.  I enjoy the south.  I also enjoy other parts of the United States.  To me it is not a matter of liking or disliking a particular region of our great nation.  It is a matter of why some people continue to hang on to one of the most traumatic events in our history in some romantic belief that life was “better” then.  I guarantee that folks in other parts of the country hang on to their heritage.  Coloradans as mountain people are very independent.  New Englanders are a different breed with different customs, traditions and even language.  Each of our national regions have their own history, heritage, and pride, but they do not insist on flying any flag other than the United States flag or insist secession is something to celebrate.

I am proud of the great citizens of South Carolina.  They are moving on with grace and humility. Others are getting the picture.  As Americans — north, south, east and west — let’s all move on.

They Are All The Same

The passing of time has given us little to no more perspective, and certainly no less sorrow, on the murder of nine American citizens at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on the 17th of June this year.  A tragedy in no uncertain terms.

Much has been written, and I am certain will be again in the future as he goes to trial, about the motives of the young man who committed this despicable act.  To me it is relatively simple — he is a terrorist in the same vein as those joining ISIS, killing tourists in Tunisia, or the London bombings conducted ten years ago yesterday (the UK’s “7/7” which they equate to our 9/11).  The perpetrators of these evil acts and more are all of the same type. Almost universally they tend to be young males, alienated from society, aggrieved in their minds in some way by a societal group and able to find others of like mind on the internet.

It is this last element that may be different in society today than in years past but it does not adequately explain their actions.  As we all know, one can find almost anything on the internet.  There is no filter, there is no verification of facts, there is no stopping the vilification of one group or another and it is the perfect vehicle for inducing someone overlooked by society who feels a need to make a name for themselves.  It can be by conducting a single attack on their own, or it can be a recruitment tool to get young men to leave their homes and join a vicious organization that gives them vindication for their dirty deeds.  The internet makes it all easier, but it does not of itself explain their actions.

For some reason when such an act occurs in the United States we rarely use the word “terrorist.”  I don’t know why.  These are certainly terrorist acts done in the name of some cause just as they are overseas. Instead we seem to use words like “unstable” or “anti-social” or “lone wolf” or other words that tend to make it seem as though terrorism by United States citizens does not take place.  The implication is that attacks against Americans are only terrorist attacks if conducted overseas or are done on American soil by foreigners. The bombers of a church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 that killed four young girls were terrorists. Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and was a terrorist. The six people killed in the Wisconsin Sikh Temple in 2012 were killed by a terrorist. Unfortunately, I could go on and on. We rightly worry about foreign terrorists carrying out attacks on our cities.  Let’s also understand that such attacks occur all too often by Americans.

I will not use pop psychology to analyze the elements of our society that cause these people to terrorize their fellow citizens.  I will argue that the first step is to call them what they are and not to rationalize their behavior even as we call it a tragedy.  Whether from the Middle East or the U.S. Midwest, they are the same.  They are terrorists.

Footnote:  I am sure that you, like me, are astounded at the generosity, humility, faith and belief in God demonstrated by the families and friends of those killed in the attack in Charleston.  I am humbled by their peace filled reaction.  Whatever our individual faith or beliefs, we could all take a lesson from them.