Friday, March 18, 2011

“We’ve got to ask young Arabs to extend their hands” to their Iranian counterparts challenging the mullahs, says Bernard Kouchner

Through three months of Arab revolt against autocratic leaders, it’s become commonplace to say that the only clear strategic winner from the changes so far is Iran
writes John Vinocur in the International Herald Tribune, as the Islamic Republic is
supposedly picking up windfall political fruit as if sitting in an armchair.

Condensed, the argument goes like this: There has been only profit for Iran from the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, who represented an Arab bulwark against Tehran’s nuclear weapons ambitions and the mullahs’ allies, Hezbollah and Hamas. Conversely, and beyond its hopes for democracy in the Middle East, the United States and some of its Western friends have reaped potential grief in the destabilization their old regional power relationships.

On the ides of March 2011, that assessment appears incomplete and almost mild. Rather, there’s a developing sense of foreboding.

Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi has increasingly real chances of putting down the rebellion against him in Libya. Before his boss could try to paper over what he said last week, James R. Clapper Jr., President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, testified before Congress that the dictator’s forces “will prevail” in the long term.

Apart from twisting the neck of the theories of inexorable popular rage certain to engulf all the region’s tyrants (Just you wait, Tehran!), this shard of very possible truth places the West’s hesitant, stuttering position on Libya parallel to its halting response to the threat of Iranian nukes — and reassures Iran’s leaders of their wisdom in moving to crush their own protesters.

A second naïve premise is also collapsing.

It was the Pollyanna-ish (and calming) assumption of some analysts that while pocketing the disarray from the Arab upheaval, Iran was too clever to meddle in creating more of it. Now, for the first time, we’re told this isn’t so.

… [The] account of active Iranian troublemaking in Bahrain, a country of basic strategic importance to America, is significant. Add to that a surge of new notions of Western impotence — plus an emboldened Iran — if the Libyan colonel prevails.

And this: Last month, Britain provided a new urgency in the assessment of Iran’s nuclear weapons timetable. Defense Minister Liam Fox has said “it is entirely possible” that Iran could produce a nuke in 2012.

So what to do? No decisive response on Iran, the ultimate Middle Eastern issue, is coming from Western capitals.

Their lack of focus on it, their nervousness about linking the Arab revolts with Iran through urging young Arab democracies to back Iran’s protest movement, is striking.

…This generalized timidity is not escaping attention. Bernard Kouchner, the former French foreign minister, put his finger on it in a conversation last week.

He said, “We’ve got to ask young Arabs to extend their hands” to their Iranian counterparts challenging the mullahs. “The French government should propose it. The question of Iran and the Arab revolt has not been joined as one.”

… Senator John Kyl … accused the administration of failing to go beyond “the first grade” level in assisting the Iranian opposition in the manner the United States had helped Poland’s Solidarity protesters in the years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.