Friday, January 30, 2015

Iran negotiations should also be about Iraq, and terrorism around the world

It has now become cliche to say that when President George W. Bush launched a war with Iraq in 2003, the expectation existed that a dictator would be toppled and somehow liberal democracy would emerge and flourish. It has also become cliche, at this point, to say that the result was something far worse - instead of peace and the spread of liberal values, we saw chaos, widespread sectarian violence, political corruption and a decrease in regional stability.

This much is obvious and well documented, and frankly, I think serious students of Middle Eastern history were not surprised by the results. This is not to say that Saddam Hussein was anything other than a brutal, inhuman dictator who was responsible for the torture and gruesome deaths of countless people - he was clearly that - but I do think that in retrospect the White House, State Department and others working on the ground following the invasion would have made more progress if they had tried to plant the seeds of civil society, instead of attempting to jump right into a fully functioning democratic form of government. By leapfrogging over this crucial step and attempting to elect and seat a representative government with haste,  I believe that politicians were able to come into power who brought with them their own disastrously sectarian agendas, the net result of which was a further fracturing of Iraq, not only socially, but geographically.

There have been no shortage of terrible outcomes as a result of a weak central government in Baghdad, but the thing that worries me the most is the degree to which Iran has been able to take advantage of this instability to further its own agenda within the country. The spread of ISIS, the use of Iraqi soil as a training ground by terrorists who may return to the West, the persecution of Christians and other minorities - all of these things are fairly awful on their own, but in my mind, the greatest long term threat emerging out of this bedlam on the Euphrates is the rise of an increasingly expansionist Iran. 

Kepel's assessment of the meddlesome role of Iran inside Iraq - published in 2008 - has only been validated by time. From the presence of Iranian agents inside the country, to Tehran's provision of Explosively Formed Penetrators and other advanced weapons to Iraqi militias, Iran has done nothing 
in the context of negotiations with Iran over its pursuit of nuclear weapons, I would argue that those doing the talking should (and hopefully are) taking a holistic view, not only of the regime's actions when it comes to the pursuit of nuclear capabilities and its egregious record on human rights at home and abroad, but the ongoing role that Iranian leaders have played in the murder of coalition forces as well as the intensely disruptive role Tehran is playing in Iraq and across the region.

Yes, we should pursue all reasonable paths toward a diplomatic, peaceful resolution to the potential crisis of a nuclear Iran, but the American people and those elected and appointed to represent our interests on the world stage (not to mention our European allies) should also be clear-eyed when it comes to assessing Iranian sincerity on the matter of global stability and security. To expect that a regime which has engaged in a shadow war for over thirty years with the United States, Israel, and the west, often through its proxy Hezbollah, to suddenly emerge as an honest actor, beggars belief.
This is a tense moment in negotiations, with Congress and President Obama seemingly at odds over how best to proceed. Regardless of whatever strategy is proven correct, my hope is that the result will be not only the prevention of a nuclear Iran, but a curtailing of the regime's sponsorship of terror abroad and its political meddling inside Iraq - preventing the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Tehran is vital, but more than that, Iranian aggression needs to be checked more broadly on the international stage. If negotiators can succeed in this, they will have achieved a broad victory, not only limiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but striking a blow for peace in the region and beyond. 

This is something that author Gilles Kepel noted in his 2008 book "Beyond Terror and Martyrdom, The Future of the Middle East," writing that:

"By delivering material to various armed bands in Iraq, both Shiite and Sunni, the Mullah's regime - and particularly the Pasdaran - turned America's peacekeeping efforts into mission impossible. Iran believed that once the United States was thoroughly mired in Iraq  - regardless of which side of the insurgency brought this about - it would be forced to negotiate from a position of weakness and confirm the regional supremacy of the Islamic Republic." (Kepel, 52)

Author Matthew Levitt has also chronicled Iranian influence and intentions in Iraq, noting in his book "Hezbollah, The Global Footprint of Lebanon's Party of God," the degree to which Iran has exploited Iraqi chaos to further its agenda of attacking the United States, while limiting its visibility within Iraq. On this particular subject, Levitt writes of Iran, "Careful not to provoke a direct confrontation with US and coalition forces, Iran armed, trained, and funded a variety of Shi'a militias and insurgent groups in an effort to bog down coalition forces in an asymmetric war of attrition." (Levitt, 290)

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Hezbollah lashes out, but what comes next?

One of my most memorable experiences in Israel was spending the summer of 2006 in Jerusalem while war raged in the north of the country. A small nation to begin with, it was almost as if one could feel the country shrinking as tour groups and summer youth programs changed their itineraries to avoid the Golan. In addition to the geographic limitations, many tourists either left once the fighting had lasted a week, or didn't come at all.

For me, it was a stark and searing reminder of the persistent threats that face this small outpost of Democracy on the Mediterranean. What the war with Hezbollah demonstrated was that while Israel may be technically superior and have one of the best militaries in the world, that  its civilians are still deeply vulnerable to attacks from terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, who have the capability not only to launch individual terror attacks, but to drag the IDF into an actual war. In my opinion, Israel was the "winner" in the 2006 war in the short term - as various media outlets have documented, while Hezbollah's leadership has been very willing to target Israelis traveling abroad, has been reticent to invite another open conflict with IDF on its doorstep.

But to be clear,  this reluctance to engage in another war has not stopped the terror group from carrying out occasional provocations, and the potential for one of these probing actions to escalate is ever present.

Whatever the reason Hezbollah might have given for this most recent violence this week, the fact remains that this group exists to facilitate the the murder of Israelis and Jews across the globe. Whether causing murder and mayhem in Buenos Aires or Burgas or inside Israel, their mission and intent remains the same.  At this point, it's hard to know what will follow the latest border incident, in which Hezbollah injured 7 Israeli soldiers and killed two - so far the IDF has responded with artillery fire, but it's anyone's guess what may happen next. Those of us who care about peace in the region are hoping that this clash does not lead to a third Lebanon War, but if it does, Hezbollah will once again have the blood of innocent civilians (on both sides of the border) on its hands. 

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

A review of Matthew Levitt's "Hezbollah, The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God"

There are many good reasons to read Matthew Levitt’s excellent book Hezbollah, The Global Footprintof Lebanon's Party of God, but perhaps one of the most compelling is the portrait he paints of a global terrorist entity not only bent on directing murder and mayhem toward Israel, the west and Jewish communities around the world, but whose ideology and operations are deeply tied to the tyrannical regime in Iran. So complete and damning is Levitt’s documentation of the intricate role that Tehran, and specifically the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has played in the murder of innocent people by employing Hezbollah as its proxy Hezbollah, that this text should be required reading for any world leader inclined to give Iran leeway when it comes to their behavior on the world stage.

As Levitt describes it, the partnership that exists between Iran and Hezbollah is symbiotic, with each one providing the other with something vital needed at the operational level in their joint effort to wreak havoc. The author’s discussion of terrorism in South America illustrates this point well, as he explores the cooperation of Iran and Hezbollah in the July1994 bombing of the Asociacon Mutual Israelita Argentina, or AMIA, as it is more commonly known. Levitt points out that in this case Iranian leaders were intimately involved, writing, “A subgroup of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, the Committee for Special Operations , made the final decision to approve the attack.” He later adds, “... once the committee reached its decision, Supreme Leader Khamanei issued a religious edict – a fatwa – sanctifying the operation as a sacred duty aimed at exporting the revolution. Intelligence chief Ali Fallahian was then given overall operational responsibility for the attack …”

This terrorist incident, which targeted a major center of Jewish life in the country, was particularly traumatic for world Jewry, and I’m glad to see the author devote an entire chapter to this incident, as well the context surrounding it. Furthermore, given the recent death (likely murder) of Alberto Nisman, an Argentine special prosecutor investigating the AMIA attack, Levitt’s discussion of Iran’s role in supporting terrorism in South America is all the more relevant today.

Beyond providing a thorough analysis of the ties between a Lebanese terrorist group and the Persian hegemon, this book is also a careful, thought-provoking study of the ways in which Hezbollah has evolved and spread, from its roots within the Lebanese civil war and family clans to a global network of operatives, murderers, supporters and sympathizers more than happy to take innocent lives when ordered or asked to do so. It further documents the consistent targeting of Israeli civilians both abroad and inside Israel by the group, as well as the dangerous role that Iran and its agents have played in Iraq following the US invasion, fomenting instability in Iraqi politics and targeting American military personnel.

Given the pervasive threat that Hezbollah presents around the world, it is no surprise that a wide range of intelligence and security agencies are working hard to limit the impact of the group, but as Levitt makes clear in his book, this is no easy task. As the author describes the efforts of the United States, Israel and other western powers to disrupt Hezbollah networks and prevent attacks it is clear that there are two main obstacles to achieving this goal, neither of which seems easy to overcome.

The first is the extensive and varied support that Iran supplies to the group, making significant financial, diplomatic, communications and intelligence resources available to those within Hezbollah who are planning and executing terror attacks. This combination of a brazen willingness to put the full resources of a nation state behind a terror group, and the eagerness with which Tehran employs Hezbollah as a proxy, do not bode well for those looking to limit the effectiveness of the group. Commenting on the ways that Hezbollah has served Iranian interests in particular in the Persian Gulf, Levitt writes , “…Tehran has traditionally seen Hezbollah as a strategic tool with which to project power without having to contend with the consequences of such activities.”

The second major challenge that Levitt outlines in his book is that in addition to actual Hezbollah operatives and emissaries, there are many individuals who are supportive of the group's ideology and are very willing to assist indirectly in an attack if called upon to do so. The scary thing about these people is that they may otherwise give no indication of support for radical Islamism, but if asked to provide a fake passport, purchase explosive precursors or rent an apartment in their own name to use as a safe house, they have no problem whatsoever doing so. On every continent except Antarctica it seems that the terror group has managed to establish itself in one way or another, probing for vulnerabilities in its enemies, procuring weapons, raising money and recruiting individuals for indoctrination and training.

Given this reality, the situation that Levitt describes is daunting, but ultimately, perhaps, not without possible remedies. For one thing, international consensus could be achieved that despite its charitable work and role in Lebanese politics, Hezbollah is not a force for good in the world. If anything, these other activities are a bid for legitimacy and political cover that no nation-state should be willing to grant them. No matter what the stated purpose is, no representative of the group should be able to raise money anywhere on the planet – in lawless regions such as parts of Africa and South America this will be hard to enforce – but in Europe and Asia there is no excuse not to prevent them from access to terror funding. Levitt also demonstrates in his book that Iran is willing to go to extraordinary lengths in order to hide its connection to Hezbollah, so perhaps shining a brighter spotlight on this relationship could also cause Tehran to pull back a bit, reducing the flow of funding and support to Hezbollah, if only temporarily.

For readers less familiar with the ins and outs of regional conflict in the Middle East or international terrorism, the book may be a bit intimidating at first, but it still offers a highly readable, well-paced introduction to the cancer that is Hezbollah and Iranian state-sponsored terrorism. For those who come to the book with some background knowledge on the topics covered they will find a meticulously researched, erudite and engaging account of the ways in which Hezbollah and Iran are making the world less safe for everyone, and for these readers, this book is likely to find a valuable place on their bookshelf.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Death of Alberto Nisman compounds tragedy of AMIA bombing

Connections between rogue states and terror groups is nothing new - At one time both Afghanistan and Sudan sheltered al-Qaeda, some Pakistani leaders likely looked the other way when it came to the location of Bin Laden, and Egypt was too lenient when it came to Hamas tunnels from Gaza - but I would argue that few countries have played as big a role as a state sponsor of terrorism as Iran has. As analysts and journalists have documented extensively, the regime in Tehran has an ocean of blood on its hands in the Middle East, from its willingness to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of lives in its war with Iraq in the 1980's to its role in the deaths of US troops in that same country in recent years. 

But the bloodshed does not stop there - as the primary booster of Hezbollah, Iran has played a key role in the murder of innocent people all over the world. This week, with the death of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who spent a decade investigating the bombing of the AMIA Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, (an act long linked to both Hezbollah and Iran) its hard to believe that Tehran was not involved in some way. It seems to me that the death of Mr. Nisman has resonated well beyond Argentina because he was a well-regarded, able civil servant, dedicated to exposing the role that Iran played in the deaths of 85 citizens of Argentina. Furthermore, the suggestion that the government of Argentina has been complicit in covering up Iranian involvement in the AMIA bombing in exchange for oil has heightened interest among the media and the public. 

Whatever the exact circumstances surrounding the death of Mr. Nisman, we can only hope that whomever is responsible is caught and brought to justice swiftly, not only for the sake of his family and colleagues, but for all those who lost their lives at the hands of Iran and its proxy Hezbollah two decades ago in Buenos Aires. 

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Tel Aviv terror attack points to deeper problem in Israeli-Palestinian conflict

When discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict many commentators and talking heads on tellevision  love to claim that it's Israeli settlements or control of Jerusalem that prevent peace. There is also no shortage of apologists happy to use western media to legitimize Hamas rocket attacks as the tactic of an oppressed people.

I'm fairly certain that no argument is going to be able to change their minds, but when a Palestinian takes a knife and tries to stab as many Israeli civilians as possible as they are waiting in a Tel Aviv bus station, as happened this morning, I find it hard to believe that a large part of what drives Hamas and its allies isn't simply pure hate for the "other." I believe in a two state solution, and yes, life in Gaza under the tyranny of Hamas is awful; I also don't personally agree with every single thing the Israeli government does.

There are things that Israel can, and has, done to move toward peace - working closely with the Palestinian Authority on security issues in the West Bank, participating in endless rounds of peace talks initiated by allies, demonstrating a willingness to have normalized relations with Arab neighbors by building partnerships with Jordan and Egypt - but the real breakthrough in this peace process will come when Palestinian leaders find a way to reorient Palestinian civil society away from a culture of death. When Mahmoud Abbas can convince his people, and by extension the terrorist organizations which exploit their fears and vulnerabilities, that unthinking hate and mass murder of civilians are not legitimate tools of resistance, but a path to their own destruction, perhaps progress can be made. Unfortunately, after this morning's events in Tel Aviv, such a day seems very far off.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Pulling together to push back against terror

Journalists in a weekly meeting, patrons in an Australian cafe, students at a Jewish school in Toulouse, fans watching the Boston Marathon and now, this morning, shoppers at a kosher grocery store in eastern Paris, have become the latest victims of terrorism as a gunman holds a number of innocent people hostage. While these situations may not be identical, taken together they do paint a grim portrait of murderous intolerance and wanton disregard for human life, all in the service of a seriously perverted view of religion. 

In the last few days the media has been full of speculation and analysis surrounding the events in France, and one thing that has struck me in following the reports is that while some experts emphasize that the best way to approach the problem of Islamist terrorism is by military means, others stress that it should be viewed largely as an issue to be addressed by law enforcement. Personally, I think that this problem requires resources that both military and law enforcement institutions can bring to bear, and we must also go beyond capturing or killing those who would carry out attacks like those which have traumatized Europe in recent years, seeking guidance from sociologists, psychologists and others with relevant expertise to undermine the ideology that fuels radicalization.

However events turn out today in France there is no question in my mind that unless we make use of every resource at our disposal, from security and intelligence services to clergy, social scientists and civic leaders, we are likely to see an increase in the damage that these nihilists are causing all over the world. 

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A double tragedy today in Paris

This morning the world woke up once again to media reports of a brutal terrorist attack in France, with the news that twelve innocent people had been murdered at the offices of a leading French satire publication. Murderous violence for any reason is a stain on the fabric of society, terrorism perhaps even more so. Whatever the particularly twisted political, religious or ideological reasoning behind each incident, it is always the case that the first victims are those directly impacted by the violence and the secondary victim is society at large. 

The events today in Paris are no exception - for the families, friends and colleagues of those killed what occurred thus morning is a deeply personal tragedy. This was a brazen assault not only on the sanctity of human life, but by attacking journalists the people who did this were striking out at a central element, a cornerstone of civil society. That this was a satirical publication is also likely significant - after all, satire is often the sharpest tool of social critics, holding a mirror up to society, highlighting its most ironic inconsistencies, flaws and hypocrisies. Whether in the writings of Swift, the pages of the Harvard Lampoon or in Charlie Hebdo, satirists employ humor and wit to tell truth to power, playing an important role in civil society. 

It goes without saying that anyone who values human life wants to see the criminals who perpetrated this heinous act swiftly caught and brought to justice. But we must also be willing to say, through whatever means we have at our disposal, that this act was not only a crime against those killed, or an attack against an individual media outlet, but an assault on the idea of civil society itself. To do anything less would be to ignore the real and present danger all Western societies face today, and we would do so at our peril.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.