John Hickman – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Wed, 16 Jun 2021 04:05:55 +0000 en-US hourly 1 What NPR’s “All Things Considered” won’t Tell you about the Iran Nuclear Issue (Like that Iran is Weak and has no Nukes while Israel is advanced and Does) Tue, 15 Jun 2021 04:05:36 +0000 Mt. Berry, Ga. (Special to Informed Comment) – What news audiences of National Public Radio (NPR)’s All Things Considered have and have not heard about the Iranian nuclear program since the election of Joe Biden offers a neat boundary delineation of the Hallin spheres of mainstream reporting on the topic. Daniel Hallin’s classic study of American news coverage of the War in Vietnam[1] identified three concentric spheres of discourse. Information and assumptions deemed to be beyond dispute lie in the consensus sphere; those about which disagreement may be reported lie in the sphere of legitimate controversy; and those beyond the bounds of acceptable expression lie in the sphere of deviance. What All Things Considered reports matters because its listeners are generally better educated and more liberal than other broadcast news audiences. They are the demographic in Biden’s electoral base most attentive to foreign policy. Program content tends to legitimate and thus lock in the range of acceptable policy choices for decision makers.

The most frequently repeated element in the consensus sphere is that negotiations between Washington and Tehran to “revive” or “resurrect” the “Iran nuclear deal” or “2015 nuclear deal,” informal phrases that replace the formal sounding JCPOA, is an important part of Biden’s foreign policy agenda. Another undisputed element is the assumption that Iran’s “advanced missile program” or “ballistic missile program” together with its “support for militant groups” is a “threat to the region.” Nevertheless, Iranian nuclear weapons are assumed to pose an existential threat to Israel, as is Israeli responsibility for sabotage and assassination operations against the Iranian nuclear program. Also, in an April 9, 2021 broadcast, NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez allowed an assertion by Michael Singh, a Middle East adviser in the Georgia W. Bush administration, that Iranian nuclear weapons are a “serious threat” to the United States to pass unchallenged. (Iran has no nuclear weapons or even a program to make them, simply a civilian nuclear enrichment program to make fuel for reactors for electricity generation.)

The sphere of legitimate controversy is narrow, largely confined to the question whether the JCPOA will prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state or would simply “kick the can down the road” until it does. Framed in part as a partisan disagreement between Democrats and Republicans, the news story is reduced to whether Washington should extract additional concessions from a vulnerable Tehran for rolling back economic sanctions.

That the Iranian nuclear weapons program might be a rational policy response to the Israeli nuclear arsenal, understandable as nuclear deterrence, is relegated to the sphere of deviance. Indeed, comparisons drawn to any case of nuclear proliferation other than North Korea appears discursively verboten. The tabooed context is that deterring dangerous rivals has been crucial to decisions to acquire nuclear weapons historically. The Soviet Union acquired nuclear weapons because the United States had them. India acquired them because them the People’s Republic of China had them. Pakistan acquired them because India had them. Possessing nuclear weapons did not always prevent war between these dyads but it appears to have prevented nuclear war and also gave nuclear weapons states powerful incentives to prevent conventional conflicts from escalating. Iran almost certainly wants nuclear weapons to deter nuclear and conventional attack from its nuclear-armed rival Israel (unlike Iran, Israel actually has really-existing atom bombs, over 100 of them, similar to India’s arsenal).

There are other reasons for countries to go nuclear. Apartheid era South Africa acquired a nuclear arsenal of a half dozen warheads to intimidate neighboring states in a region where it was isolated. Israel’s nuclear arsenal appears to have been constructed for the same reasons. The good news is that South Africa’s nukes were disassembled with the change to a majority rule in the early 1990s.

The precise boundary between the spheres of legitimate controversy and deviance for this news story is identifiable in the only recent All Things Considered broadcast acknowledging the existence of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, an April 12, 2021 interview by NPR anchor Mary Louise Kelly with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Karim Sadjadpour. The interviewee said the following:

“[I]f you look at this through a geographic lens, Iran is goliath and Israel is David. Iran is 75 times larger than Israel. If you look at this through a military lens, Israel is Goliath, and Iran is David. Israel has over 100 nuclear weapons. Iran has none. So both countries see themselves as kind of the victim fighting injustice. And you know that old expression, all is fair in love and war.”

Sadjadpour can be forgiven his Biblical metaphor to describe dueling victim ideologies, though not his assertion of comparable military power. Yes, Iran has 75 times the area of Israel but that is a silly metric. The two countries don’t share a land border. What is relevant is that only Iran is vulnerable to nuclear bombardment. Israel’s minimum estimate of 110 nuclear warheads, 80 deployed as ballistic missiles and 30 as gravity bombs[2] are enough firepower to destroy Iran’s 18 cities with populations of 500,000 or more together with its 26 major military bases, and still have plenty remaining to continue intimidating neighboring Arab countries.

Sadjadpour continued by evoking the perspective of Israelis but not of Iranians: “For the Israelis, they say they’re not going to outsource our security to any other country. Iran poses a threat to us, and we need to counter them.” Ignoring that invitation to listeners to perceive the conflict solely from the Israeli vantage, Kelly then shifted attention back to the consensus sphere item that negotiations will probably resume. This was not an inspiring example of journalism.

If the editors and reporters at All Things Considered want their listeners to understand this news story, they should describe nuclear deterrence as a rational motivation for the Iranian nuclear program and report rather than adopt the national security perspectives of both Israeli and Iranian decision makers. More generally they should cover events in the Middle East using language that leaves no doubt that the lives of Iranians and citizens of majority Arab countries are just as valuable as those of Israelis.

[1] Daniel Hallin. The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press,1986. Pp. 116-117.

[2] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.


Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

CGTN Europe: “Iran nuclear talks to resume in Vienna as election looms”

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“Lethal Disregard:” UN report on Deaths of Migrants in Mediterranean goes too Light on Libyan, Italian Navies Mon, 07 Jun 2021 04:03:39 +0000 Mt. Berry, Ga. (Special to Informed Comment) – The diplomatic language used in official human rights reports often fails to express the horrors that they reference. So it is with the May 2021 report issued by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet: “Lethal Disregard: Search and Rescue and the Protection of Migrants in the Central Mediterranean” Reading like an indictment where the prosecutor neglected to name most of the individual perpetrators in a large transnational criminal enterprise, the document details behaviors by the maritime police forces of Libya, Italy and Malta that have resulted in the preventable deaths and suffering of migrants at sea as well as the human rights abuses of migrants returned to Libya. Although the report performs important work by describing the crisis using statistics and personal accounts of anonymous survivors, the names of individuals and many of the organizations that have exploited it for economic gain and political advantage are missing from the text.

The scale of the crisis tends to be obscured in news coverage that is focused on individual tragedies. As “Lethal Disregard” notes, 2,239 migrants are known to have died attempting to cross the Central Mediterranean in its reporting period between January 2019 and December 2020. That figure represents 69% of all of the fatalities of the larger Mediterranean migrant crisis which also encompasses seaborne crossings in the Aegean and Atlantic/Western Mediterranean. Another 632 migrants have died so far in 2021 The report points out that the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG), which is funded by Italy, increased its interceptions and returns of migrants to Libya from 8,403 in 2019 to 10,352 in 2020.

If international law is actually law in the proper sense – always a question given that its enforcement is based on international consensus and/or national self-help – then what is described in the report is clearly a massive criminal enterprise. The major crimes perpetrated as part of the enterprise include deliberate delays by governments in fulfilling the obligation to engage in search and rescue operations at sea, preventing private organizations from undertaking search and rescue operations at sea, and violation of the principle of non-refoulement, which forbids returning refugees and asylum seekers to countries where they face peril.

Under both the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the governments of coastal states, military ships and merchant ships are obliged to offer assistance to people in distress at sea. These treaties articulate duties that have been part of the customary law of the sea for centuries. Sailing past capsized or sinking vessels and ignoring appeals for help communicated by radio and cellphones violate unambiguous legal obligations. Among the most chilling observations in the report is that Italian and Maltese authorities responsible for search and rescue played ‘not me’ bureaucratic games with desperate migrants asking for help when their maritime zones are unclear or overlap.

Claiming that humanitarian NGOs like Sea Watch operating their own search and rescue operations to fill the gap left by governments were incentivizing migration, the Italian government impounded resources and targeted activists like Carola Rackete with criminal prosecutions.

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol and other international treaty prohibit the returning refugees to the countries from which they have fled under the principle of non-refoulement. The civil war and organized crime characterizing Libya and its post-2011 history of brutality toward African migrants make it unsafe as a destination for the deportation of migrants and doing so a violation of international law. “Lethal Disregard” relates the case of migrants taken into custody by individuals in LCG uniforms and then imprisoned for eight months on a farm operated by smugglers.

At the core of every criminal enterprise is a quid pro quo that motivates the violation of law. Here the exchange is between conservative populist Italian politicians who win elections with xenophobic appeals and Libyan politicians who receive Official Development Assistance for the LCG to intercept migrants and haul them back to Libya. The names of Italian politicians who have stoked xenophobic feeling and violence against migrants are hardly secret: Five Star Movement’s Luigi Di Maio, the Northern League’s Matteo Salvini and Forza Italia’s Silvio Berlusconi.

There is more to the contemporary Italo-Libyan relationship than migrants. Investments in oil and gas production together with construction contracts shape form the deepest layer of their connection. The partially state-owned Italian oil giant ENI operates the Western Libya GAS Project that includes major onshore and offshore fields as well as the Greenstream gas pipeline.

The same economic interests were pulling the two countries together before the 2011 intervention by NATO to support the rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi’s government and it is unsurprising that they are doing so again a decade later. What is different this time is that ten years of instability in Libya have made it a lawless environment conducive to human trafficking.

“Lethal Disregard” makes oblique reference to the quid pro quo by framing it as a relationship between the supranational European Union (EU) and its member states with the maritime police force of Libya with the following recommendation:

“Ensure any cooperation with the LCG is premised on due diligence and suspend the provision of funding, training and logistical support to the LCG, making the continuation of such support dependent upon a consistent and sustained demonstration of respect for international law by the LCG.”

In the alternative universe for which “Lethal Disregard” appears to have been written, the EU pursues a unified foreign policy vis-à-vis Libya, which is adhered to by EU member state Italy rather than electoral advantage of Italian politicians and profits of Italian business firms. That the report references the LCG rather than a unified Libyan national government is a departure from diplomatic make-believe. Additional concessions to reality will need to be made to accurately assess the gravity of the crisis.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Dramatic migrant rescue as UN warns of rising deaths in Mediterranean and North Atlantic – BBC News

Let Lebanon be Lebanon: Paris should Stop Threatening Beirut with EU Sanctions Mon, 24 May 2021 04:03:30 +0000 John Hickman

“Governing Lebanon is surely more daunting than governing France.”[1] That pearl of wisdom in an essay defending consociational democracy by University of Pennsylvania political scientist Brendan O’Leary has never been more accurate. A delicate balance of domestic interests with institutional vetoes at the best of times, Lebanese politics has been stalemated for months as the parties have failed to agree on a coalition government which would be responsible, among other pressing items, for negotiating with international creditors. More than a year ago, Lebanon failed to pay a $1.2 billion Eurobond, defaulting on a sovereign debt for the first time in its history.[2] Surprising in itself, Beirut has successfully dithered rather than accommodate the International Monetary Fund (IMF) with the sort of painful domestic policy package that sees foreign banks repaid at the expense of domestic living standards.

The country once described as the ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’ for its own international banking is no longer a ‘stalwart debtor’ in the reputational schema of Stanford University political scientist Michael Tomz. But will it become a fairweather or perhaps even a lemon debtor? Stalwart debtors never default. Think Norway. Fairweather debtors sometimes default but repay when they can. Think Thailand. Lemon debtors almost invariably default. Think Argentina. Lebanon could afford to be a stalwart debtor back when it had no competition as the financial, entertainment and media capital of the Arab World, before the influx of Syrian refugees and before the Covid-19 Pandemic hammered its economy together with the rest of the world.

Today, Lebanon is economically prostrate and there is little elite interest in accepting the sorts of economic and social pain the IMF has in mind. Viewed from Paris, London or Washington, the protracted process of forming a new government might look like a collective action problem. Viewed from Beirut, however, it may appear a means of delaying the pain and saving Lebanese leaders from the onus of imposing it.

French bankers and thus the French foreign policy establishment are so unhappy with Lebanese recalcitrance that they have threatened to impose economic sanctions via the European Union on Lebanese officials they hold responsible.[3] Economic sanctions are what the Global North has heretofore imposed for horrific war crimes committed by African warlords and predatory organized crime by post-Soviet oligarchs. Using them to punish the failure to form a government is something new.

The unprecedented threat is attributable in part to the perennial unhappiness of the French political class with its Lebanese counterpart. France, as the League of Nations mandatory power, is responsible for establishing Lebanon and Syria as separate states despite their common history. Colonial fantasies about the Frankish Crusader states perhaps inspired the effort to create a Christian dominated Arab client state. Yet the Lebanese have always displayed an inclination to be themselves rather than French. Lebanese consociationalism, with the modus vivendi political cartel among elites in a society deeply divided by religion, in particular has irritated French republican elites since the Free French opposed the 1943 Lebanese pacte nationale.

The Constitution of the Fifth Republic describes France as indivisible, though obviously it is not, but Paris wants its former colonies and semi-colonies to embrace the adversarial democracy implicit in that sort of national identity. One of the ironies here is that the Quay d’Orsay threatens to use the economic might of the European Union, itself the planet’s most complex and extensive consociational entity whose state membership includes a host of successful consociational democracies, against the planet’s second oldest consociational democracy. (The Netherlands has an older consociational regime than Lebanon).

That Lebanon is today an economic mess is undeniable. Consumer banks have been unable to pay their depositors in hard currency, a shocking dysfunction given the country’s dependence on remittances. Sudden losses in the value of the Lebanese pound have led to rioting. The Lebanese public understandably blames both official corruption and international lenders for their economic distress. A 2019 public opinion poll found that 91% of Lebanese respondents considered government corrupt to medium or large extent and 59% of respondents anticipated that the economic situation would be worse or much worse over the next two to years.[4]

Economic distress is compounded by the extraordinary stresses of its regional environment, especially Syrian refugee flight and the violations of its sovereignty by Israel. Lebanese airspace sovereignty is regularly violated by Israeli military aircraft without apparent objection from Washington, London or Paris. Against this it is amazing that today’s Lebanon has not as yet succumbed to civil war or military dictatorship. European consociational democracies have confronted nothing comparable since the end of the Second World War.

What decision-makers in the Global North ought to recognize is that Lebanon functions, whether well or badly, only when its political class is permitted to negotiate shifts in domestic relative power without excessive foreign meddling. Rather than threatening economic sanctions, France should exercise patience until a vulnerable, exhausted Lebanon rises from the dust. Paris should act less as a harassing debt collector and instead like a responsible former mandatory power. The reality is that Lebanon is unlikely to repay any of its sovereign debt in the near future without significant help. Failing to provide it risks transforming a former stalwart debtor into a permanent lemon debtor rather than a temporary fair-weather debtor. More importantly, the only hope for Lebanese to develop the sense of secular Lebanese-ness the French political class ostensibly desires, is to allow it to emerge organically from public policy problems effectively managed. The Swiss are as Swiss as they can be because and not despite their consociational institutions. Nothing more than that should be asked of the Lebanese.

[1] Brendan O’Leary. “Debating Consociational Politics: Normative and Explanatory Arguments.” In From Power-Sharing to Democracy: Post-Conflict Institutions in Ethnically Divided Societies, (Ed.) S. J. R. Noel. (Toronto: McGill-Queens University Press, 2005), pp. 3-43.

[2] M. Amlôt (8 March 2020). “Lebanon’s Eurobond Default: Here’s What Happens Next.” Al Arabiya.

[3] Al-Jazeera. “France Sanctions Lebanese Figures ‘For Preventing Crisis Exit’.” 29 April 2021.

[4] Arab Barometer (2019). Arab Barometer V, Lebanon Country Report. Accessed 30 November 2020.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

France 24 English: “French envoy visits crisis-hit Lebanon as pressure builds”