Friday, October 4, 2013

How the Conflict in Syria can lead to an nuclear agreement with Iran

One day I did not say goodbye to my boys as they drove to school, I sent them off with a remark, saying that they might get to live their adulthood in a peaceful world. That day was the 20/9-2013, and I’d just read President Hassan Rouhani’s now famous op.ed. in the Washington Post, and the thought occurred to me: Can the conflict in Syria lead to a more peaceful world? I believe so, but what will it take for the Syrian conflict to lead to a better international system and a lasting global peace. For a beginning, Rouhani points at three key factors.

Karl Fredrik Reuterswärd's sculpture Non Violence, which is located outside the UN headquarters in New York. UN's overarching goal is world peace. Photo from UN archives.

The migration of power
If world leaders grasp the opportunity that has arisen in the wake of the civil war in Syria, then yes, we can come closer to a more stable and peaceful world. But what are they, the world leaders, to look for up until the Geneva-meeting?

First the global balance of power has changed in the last 20 years. It is no longer the West against the rest, and herein lies the chance to say goodbye to an unjust and therefore, dysfunctional international system. A system that first and foremost, as Kishore Mahbubani states, has protected western interests. Those days are over, and it is, as Barack Obama said when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly this year, time to rethink - and more deeply, to take into consideration the overarching goal of the UN, which is global peace.

The changed global environment is the first Pr. Rouhani points out in his article: "The world has changed. International politics is no longer a zero-sum game but a multi-dimensional arena where cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously. Gone is the age of blood feuds. World leaders are expected to lead in turning threats into opportunities.”

This displacement of economic power is well documented. But to reform the institutions of the international society, it is important that the leaders of world and their populations realize that national interests can no longer be handled in fierce competition with each other. And that is the second important thing, Pr. Rouhani points out:
In other words, win-win outcomes are not just favorable but also achievable. A zero-sum, Cold War mentality leads to everyone’s loss."

To achieve peace in the world obviously requires more than a new president in Iran. It requires reform of the international system, particularly the United Nation’s Security Council (UNSC). Reforms that on the surface, seem counter to western interests: we must share our influence after general democratic principles. But in the long run democracy is the only viable option.

The way the Syrian conflict has been handled and mishandled reveals some of those elements that should be taken into consideration in making a more just international system. And if we in the West do not rise to the challenge of the times, and participate in making this world a better and more fair place, we might be the ones who in the future get our arms twisted or become ousted, when India, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Vietnam, Nigeria, South Africa, and China get enough.

The citizens of the western cultures represents only 12% of the world’s total population, says Mahbubani in an interview in The Economic Times. Asia's population constitutes 55% of the total world population. We could also just say that 88% of the world population is non-western, but 60% of the permanent seats in the UNSC is taken by western countries: the US, England and France. Russia and China have the last two out of the five permanent seats. That seems tainted, when as Mahbubani wrote in The Great Convergence, the western democratic ideal is "every citizen has equal moral worth.” UNSC reflects so clearly yesterday's world – the Cold War mentality.

Thus, the world is ruled by a minority – not unlike many totalitarian states. This undemocratic injustice should be changed, and Mahbubani has a possible proposal balancing UNSC in another way, which I will advocate later on.

The third thing Pr. Rouhani points to is the question of identity. Maybe the most important issue. And in my opinion exactly the same factor, that Samuel P. Huntington in 1993 pointed to as the key factor in the conflicts to come; after the clash and crash of the political ideologies we would identify ourselves along the lines of civilizations. Pr. Rouhani points precisely at this ghost in the world's conflict zones, when he states: "We must also pay attention to the issue of identity as a key driver of tension in, and beyond, the Middle East.
At their core, the vicious battles in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria are over the nature of those countries’ identities and their consequent roles in our region and the world."

Religious affiliation is about identity. Pr. Rouhani’s focus on identity is a thinly veiled call for religious tolerance in its modern form, another Western idea.

From Pr. Hassan Rouhanis inauguration, August 2013. Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader hands Rouhani something (I don't know what). A portrait of the Islamic Revolution Leader, Ayatollah Khomeinei, who in 1979 ousted Iran's last Shah (King), is hanging top left. Shah Reza Pahlavi was reinstalled by the Americans after a coup in 1953 against the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadeq. Photo from the Iranian President's website.

The dysfunctional UNSC
In the heydays of the Arabic spring, we could only look scared and in wonder at the way in which Bashir Al Assad responded to the Syrian people's demands for freedom and reform. In this light it was only natural to demand Assad's departure as part of the solution. Maybe Barack Obama made a rhetorical error with the remark about the red line. I don’t think so; he knows what Kennedy thought of appeasement, and he knows what Kennedy achieved. And if you don’t, there’s plenty of inspiration to get in Jeffrey Sachs book on Kennedy’s quest for peace.

But the deeper cause of the failure in Syria is to be found in the dysfunctional institutions of the international society. More precisely, the UNSC. But it is also precisely in its dysfunctions, we can see what to alter – and therefore in which parts our hopes for a global peace can rest. Not for the Syrian citizens, unfortunately, but for everyone else. As Assad resorted to chemical weapons, and Obama then had to take his word on the red line seriously and begin preparations for an attack on Syria, the British House of Commons voted against an intervention without the UN. Obama lost an important ally, and then found time to consult the Congress about their views on the matter. During this period Vladimir Putin made his move.

Not, as Putin claims, to defend the Assad regime but to preserve the balance in the international system.
The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. […] It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.

It’s ironic to claim that the international system was in balance before. It’s precisely because of imbalance in the UNSC, that the Syrian conflict could escalate to the present – for the Syrian population hopeless level. The imbalance in the international community was visible in Russia's and Iran's alliance with Syria and a passive China. The West, on the one hand, and the rest on the otheror rather Orthodox Christians and Shias on the one hand and the West and Sunnis on the other side. No pure civilization lines. At the same time it seems to me, that the Sino-Orthodox-Shia flank – cynical at the expense of the Syrian population – wanted to demonstrate to the US that they can no longer take action on their own. That’s for the better. Instead of drawing up hostile borders, we have a unanimous UNSC vote to disarm Syria from chemical weapons. Who saw this coming a fortnight ago?

It is also ironic that it probably was Obama's threat to act on his own, that made Putin respond, jump in and attempt to rescue the same system, he’s been helping to destroy. And you have to wonder to what extent Putin is ready to commit?

In any case, Putin has stumbled so far into a solution that he will find it difficult to back down. The longtime Beirut correspondent for the Danish newspaper, Information, and author of a book about the Arab Spring, Lasse Ellegaard, is citing an anonymous Western diplomat as saying that: "The two sides [U.S. and Russia] has come so far in the process that they would lose face if they returned to the veto-zero-situation." And let's be happy about that, no matter how little we like Putin.

Putin's Russia might very well be a major obstacle for a peaceful development. A world society can not passively watch as Putin slowly strangles civil society and passes on laws, that clearly violate basic human rights – especially as China is working in the opposite direction. It's a good question whether Putin stumbled into the solution of the Syrian conflict out of sheer excitement over what he saw as Obama's rhetorical mistake, and an opportunity to demonstrate his power. But Obama maybe have Putin cornered by this talk of a red line – mistake or not.

Once in a Lifetime
Nevertheless, the chance of a serious change is here. And to consider the future path of the international society, and to straighten out the imbalance between the world's superpowers. Whether Putin wanted it or not, he is a part of a solution now, and properly he also has to commit himself to this rational path in the near future. Caught in the net by his own words of a
“system of international law and order.”

It will not save the Syrian population. But it should be able to prevent a similar conflict from escalating – it could be in Yemen, North Korea, Al-Shahab in Somalia or it could be the Iranian nuclear programme. But if Iran becomes a part of the world community it has no need for nuclear weapons. And if the responsible countries of the world stands firm and united (in an inclusive and friendly way) against Iran, and willing to ease sanctions it will make it extremely difficult for Iran to return to the rhetoric and strategy of the time under Pr. Ahmedinejad.

The controversial political scientist Kenneth N. Waltz (1924-2013), was of the opinion that Iran only wanted the bomb to be appropriately listened to in the international society. It is a matter of identity and recognition – exactly as Pr. Rouhani points out. Maybe Iran wants to be the Japan of the Middle East; to develop an Islamic country embracing modernity in a slightly different way.

Pr. Rouhani speaks about the country’s right to defend itself – isn’t that reasonable? What are the Iranians to think when they’re not allowed to enrich uranium. Though in a friendly world, the Iranians wouldn’t need nuclear weapons. They have oil, and if they manage to reconcile with the rest of the world they can also sell it, and they can engage in the development of alternative energy sources and the lives of people. That is not only in Iran's interest, but in everyone's interest.

Of course, Pr. Rouhani must move further from conciliatory words to action, as Ray Takeyh strongly emphasizes. And commentators are justified in their skepticism toward Iran's supreme leadership, after all, Khamenei and not Rouhani has the last word. But read this little encouraging analyticalpassage of Fareed Zakaria from Time magazine:

”During the campaign, Rouhani vigorously attacked the most hard-line candidate in the race, Saeed Jalili – thought to be the favorite of the Supreme Leader – for being unable to come to an agreement with the international community and ease any of the sanctions arrayed against Iran. “It is good to have centrifuges running, provided people’s lives and livelihoods are also running,” he said in a debate, to great applause.”

The Iranian people have shown, A) with the election of the pragmatist Pr. Rouhani, in which direction they want to move and they already did so during the Green Wave in 2009 after having voted for Mir-Hossein Mousavi. And B) What interest can even Iran's supreme leader, Khamenei see being cornered if his only playmates will be Russia, Syria, and Hezbollah? C) When Pr. Rouhani in his UNGA speech criticizes other nations for violating various human rights, he must be sufficiently intelligent to know that his criticism also fit his own regime.

In 2009 the Iranians elected the reformist Mousavi to the great annoyance of the religious elite who robed him his, and the Iranian people their, victory. Millions took to the streets and protested against the electoral fraud. They were completely struck down slain to pieces by the Revolutionary Guard. "They Killed My Bro Koz He Asked Where is My Vote", it says on the young woman's sign. Photo Hamed Zaber, the wiki medias license.

The West, the Ruling Minority
Fortunately, neither Iran nor Russia are greatpowers (what can Putin use his nuclear weapons for), and the US is no longer dominant, but just a major power among equals, as Fareed Zakaria puts it. The West can no longer obstruct the agenda of other’s, and if we want to prevent China and other major powers in deciding that what is good for them is good for the rest of us, then cooperation is in our long term interest. Western countries will lose influence, but in the long-term it will be a victory for every nation of the world. It could be the last leading move of the West to point out the direction towards a real democratic international society.

I’ve already touched upon the imbalance in the UN Security Council, but the institutionalized absurdities do not stop there. The Western 12% population of the world has 50% of the votes respectively in the Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and the leaders are furthermore always from Europe and America. If you try to put yourself in the shoes of a non-western, would you then think it odd that some countries step up to the West from time to time?

Mahbubani recently continued his critique of the West in a razor-sharp analysisin the Financial Times: ”The G20 website boasts that its 20 members represent almost 90 percent of the world’s gross domestic product and 65 percent of the world’s population. At the end of the meeting, 10 G20 countries – representing 12 per cent of the world’s population – supported the American call for action [in Syria]. The maths is clear: 50 percent of the world’s citizens, a vast majority of the G20 population, did not support the US.”

Three times 7 for the eternal peace
Mahbubani can do more than criticize. He’s been a diplomat for 33 years, and has a proposal for a reform of the UNSC. The details of the proposal are outlined in his book The Great Convergence. This is not an ideal solution, he states, but something that might be politically possible, and I would like to end my article with a rough sketch of his proposal.

The Security Council shall consist of 7 permanent members: the EU, the US, China , India, Russia, Brazil, and Nigeria. And 7 pseudo-permanent members: a group counting roughly 28 countries competing for the membership responsibilities. These should be countries like Pakistan, which definitely will feel offended by India's permanent seat; Argentina and Mexico, who will be offended by Brazil's seat and of course South Africa, but also countries such as Japan, Vietnam, Turkey, Colombia, and even the major European nations, although they would be permanently represented by the EU. These are countries which all have a sufficient size to be able to pay their dues and commit troops and other kinds of assistance to the world's hotspots. Finally, 7 countries, elected from among the rest of the world's small states with the same status as today’s 10 non-permanent members.

Such a 7-7-7 Security Council, with each of the world’s major regions permanently represented, would yield a fairer and more balanced distribution of seats and thus a council of greater legitimacy. The medium-sized countries will not have to compete with quite so many to gain influence and they would more frequently find themselves sitting at the table. For the smallest nations the advantage is, that they do not have to compete with the medium sized countries.

Europe's crisis-affected populations must realize that a peaceful global development is dependent on a fair distribution of benefits and the majority of the world's population can’t afford the pensions and annual holidays as many Europeans can, and they do not have free access to hospitals and are not protected against unemployment. The best protection for minorities is rule of law, Mahbubani writes in Why We - especially the West - Need the UN Development System, therefore, the West should live up to its own ideals of democracy, and give every individual a voice.

Many Europeans, especially left-wings, believe that government subsidies are the way out of the crisis, but it's a dead-end. If we continue along the path of state-subsidiaries, we can by no means take it for granted, that invited to trade negotiations with the big economies in the future. It might as well happen that the Rest will treat us in the future as the West has treated them in the past. In a global economy, access must be equally granted to everyone – the EU and the US can’t protect their economies from competition from lower wages in development countries.

The conflict in Syria – or rather the UNSC agreement on Syria – could yield a change of the world. If we grasp the chance and cast off our shoulders old geopolitical paradigms and Cold War mentality. We can move closer to the United Nation’s basic purpose: a peaceful world.

Text, Lars Andreassen

I owe Emily Beresford a lot of thanks for helping with the translation from danish.

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