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Phyllis Bennis says this could be Obama’s “Nixon goes to China” moment with Tehran

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ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.

Iraqi cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has joined the U.S. in calling for the selection of a new prime minister as the Iraqi parliament is due to meet next Tuesday. And earlier this week, The New York Times cited two Iraqi advisers to al-Maliki saying that as many as 1,700 U.S. private security forces could arrive in Iraq to protect 300 military advisers. It also appears unclear at the moment whether Isis will advance towards Baghdad in the near future.

Joining us now to give an analysis of this situation is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is a fellow and the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She is the author of many books, including Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.

Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.


WORONCZUK: So, Phyllis, let’s get a comment from you on the latest news about al-Sistani’s call for a new prime minister and what role this might play in defusing the political crisis taking place right now.

BENNIS: Well, it’s important to keep in mind that the political crisis is far more than the rise of ISIS, this very violent, very extremist Sunni militia organization. It also involves a massive uprising of Sunni Iraqis against this Shia sectarian government of Nouri al-Maliki, put in place, kept in place by the United States. So in that context, the call by a leading Shia clergy like the ayatollah al-Sistani is very important when he said there needs to be a broader government, that perhaps Maliki you would be replaced.

The problem is so far Maliki is resisting any actual concessions to Sunni or Kurdish or other minority opinions or needs in Iraq. He’s calling on all parties to basically support what he’s doing, ignoring the fact that his actions is what has led to the support for ISIS coming from ordinary Sunnis, who don’t necessarily agree with the extremism of their brand of Islam but are supporting them as a way of cutting down the power of Maliki’s government. So it’s potentially very important. The problem is so far there’s been no indication from Maliki that he’s going to take that as serious advice and go along with it.

WORONCZUK: And what do you make of the possibility that as many as as many as 1,700 U.S. private security guards might be coming to Baghdad soon to join the 300 military intelligence advisers that are on their way?

BENNIS: You know, this was buried at the very bottom of a long New York Times piece a day or two ago, and I think it’s an indication, number one, it’s not very certain. It came from unnamed advisers to Maliki. One said about 1,000, another said as many as 1,700. But it’s an example of the kind of mission creep, to coin an old phrase, that happens when you send 300 special forces in. Suddenly they need support. They need protection. Well, we didn’t agree to send any more troops, so what do we do? We send a bunch of private military contractors, who are almost always former military, but they have no accountability to the laws of war. They’re not accountable to the military judicial system. Whether they get immunity is always a big, contentious issue. And if they commit war crimes, which so many have in the past–there’s a trial of former Blackwater security agents going on right now here in Washington, D.C., for war crimes committed years ago during the occupation of Iraq–if that continues, we’re seeing exactly the kind of expansion of the war that we’ve all been warning against, that 300 special forces advisers can often be only the first step. This was the first step in Vietnam, 400 advisers, and look what happened there. Look what we’re facing in Iraq now. It’s a very dangerous development that could lead to serious escalation.

WORONCZUK: Okay. And much of the reporting of the conflict in Iraq thus far has focused on the sectarian and ethnic nature of the violence, but little is discussed about whether there is a class basis to it at all. And I bring this up because, you know, a common characteristic of many of the conflicts taking place right now within this region of the world is more or less that you have an alienation of citizens from those who have been in power for quite some time. And you can see that in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and Egypt, for example.

BENNIS: You’re right. In all of these issues and all of these conflicts there has been a class basis that underlies the political demands. The political demands in almost every case initially was for political rights, for the rights of citizenship, for an end to the brutality of the government, an end to torture, an end to constant arrests and harassment. But underlying that, whether it was in Egypt, where it was a question of the lack of jobs and the lack of worker rights that fueled so much of the Tahrir Square uprising that overthrew the U.S.-backed Hosni Mubarak, in Syria the original sort of motivation for what began as the Syrian Spring was partly environmental. There had been a huge, horrifying drought for year and a half in Syria that had led to a huge number of farmers losing their ability to farm. There was simply no rain, forcing them to seek jobs the city. There were no jobs. And when there’s such a shortage of jobs, the people who got the jobs were those with ties to the regime. So it led to a further alienation of people from the government.

In all of these situations, that kind of economic issue, a class issue, the lack of jobs, the lack of access to basic bread, the lack of education, all of these underpinned the immediate demands, which were for dignity, for the rights of citizenship. And we’re seeing the same thing in Iraq, the kind of sectarianism that has been put in place from the moment that the U.S. troops overthrew the government in Baghdad, demobilized the army, sent home the largely Sunni army with their weapons with no jobs, no access to ways of supporting their families, then turned around and through a process known as de-Ba’athification, did the same thing to the Iraqi government, to the civil service, people in massive numbers thrown out of their jobs, because to get their job they had had to join the Ba’ath party. Suddenly that became the basis for them losing their job. And in all of those situations, you had a growing resentment of this reversal. Now you had a Shia-led government, and the Sunni minority, a very large minority, was the part that was being disenfranchised. And they’re the ones that are now rising up, initially for political rights, but the sectarian basis has all of these economic class rationales behind it as well.

WORONCZUK: And, Phyllis, much of your own work has been about advocating for political solutions where you see there’s no military solution. What recommendations would you make right now that the U.S. could do politically in order to help end the crisis?

BENNIS: Well, I think the first thing is do no harm. Everybody has said, from President Obama to Secretary Kerry to you and me, that there is no military solution, so don’t act as if there’s a military solution. Stop sending more soldiers. Stop sending more arms. That’s number one, do no harm.

Number two, call for an immediate arms embargo on all sides. There’s no hope for diplomacy if everybody is flooding the place with weapons. The weapons manufacturers, of course, are making a killing on this. They’re the only ones profiting from this. The lives lost will not be American lives; it will be Iraqi and Syrian lives.

Third, immediately engage with Iran. I’ve been saying for a while that this is a Nixon goes to China moment. President Obama should go to Tehran. That’s not likely to happen. There would be an enormous outcry, not least from the neocons this country and from Israel and from Saudi Arabia, but they should not be allowed to stifle that very necessary diplomacy. If there’s any hope of negotiating an immediate end to the immediate rising violence in Iraq, it will come from a joint effort by Iran and the United States.

Fourth, engage with Russia, go back to the UN, try again to regain the possibility, this time with an arms embargo, of restarting talks on the Syria crisis. The last time, the didn’t really get a chance to even begin, partly because the U.S. took this crazy position that Iran should not be allowed to come to the table. That’s a guarantee that [incompr.] So you need to start all over with that.

And finally, number five, get help to the people who need it. The refugee crisis is expanding on a daily basis, certainly continuing in Iraq, and now expanding in and around–certainly, sorry, continuing in Syria, and now continuing and expanding across Iraq. And there [incompr.] more money put into the United Nations to make it possible for them to provide support for these people who are paying the huge price for this sectarian war.

WORONCZUK: So in terms of the U.S. going to Tehran to help defuse this political crisis, one would argue that the neocons who are in the U.S. have big geopolitical interests, though, in derailing this, partially because their geopolitical interest is maintaining an antagonism to some degree between the Iranians and the Saudis. And that’s because any alliance or rapprochement between these two would effectively end U.S. hegemony in the region.

BENNIS: Well, I don’t think it would necessarily end U.S. hegemony. It would change the nature of it. But it was the same way that the U.S. supported both sides in the Iran-Iraq War: armed both sides, helped continue that war, in the hope, I think, among many sources in Washington, that exactly what would happen is what did happen, that both countries would spend huge amounts of their national treasure, sacrifice enormous numbers of young men, and that that war would continue for almost a decade at enormous cost for both countries. The U.S. was the one who benefited from both sides becoming less powerful. The same is true when you have the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia for who is going to be the dominant regional power.

But the other side of it is the U.S. has a lot of strategic interests in some level of stability in that region. That has to do with oil. It has to do with pipelines. It has to do with access to U.S. military bases. It has to do with a whole lot of strategic questions. So having stability is a very important component as well. And the U.S. has a lot of interest in that, so that ending these wars that are expanding rapidly across the entire region, destabilizing potentially enormously more parts of the region, is also in the U.S. interest. So the possibility of a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement against the interests of the Saudis, as they would see it, against the demands of Israel, as they would see it, against the supporters of Israel, the neocons, the war profiteers in this country, there’s a lot of people against it.

But the people who would benefit from it are not only ordinary Iraqis, ordinary Syrians, but the vast majority of people in this country, who would benefit from an end to this antagonism between the United States and Iran. It’s time for the kind of grand bargain that you the Iranians offered in 2001 and 2002 when they were working very closely with United States in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and the effort to dislodge the Taliban in Afghanistan. In that context, they offered what they called a grand bargain, where there would be negotiations opening up everything, opening up Iran’s nuclear program, opening up Iran’s relations in the region with organizations the U.S. doesn’t like, like Hamas and Hezbollah, putting all of those issues on the agenda. In return, the U.S. would put on the agenda what Iran has been asking for, which is recognition of their regional role and an end to the crippling economic sanctions.

That kind of a negotiation could really benefit both countries and also benefit the region as a whole. It will have enormous opposition. But if President Obama is serious about having a new foreign policy for the last two years of his office–he’s not running again; he doesn’t need to be worried about who’s going to vote for him again–it’s time for him to use that model of Nixon goes to China. He should go to Tehran.

WORONCZUK: Okay. And let’s talk about Saudi role here. So Saudi Arabia recently issued a public statement about the threat that ISIS poses to them. And CNN also cited an anonymous Saudi official who said it is, quote, “aware ISIS has been very public about its intention to attempt to attack Saudi Arabia”. Now, I’ve heard claims from many people that Saudi Arabia, that they must be directly bankrolling ISIS. Well, in another report that I saw from McClatchy, it cites a RAND Corporation report that claims that less than 5 percent of their funding comes from the Saudis. What do you think the Saudi role is in the crisis right now?

BENNIS: I would doubt that either the RAND Corporation or anyone else knows exactly the percentages of funding to ISIS and ISIS-like organizations, because they’re not the only one. How much comes from Saudi Arabian government, how much comes from Saudi princes, how much comes from Saudi individuals, and how much comes from the government in Qatar, how much comes from Qatari princes, how much comes from individuals in Qatar, in each of the Gulf states I think that’s an open question. But I think it’s very clear that a lot of the money–not all. Some comes from Europe. Some comes presumably from the United States. It comes from all of the world. But some largest percentage presumably does come from various sources in the Arab Gulf region. That means Saudi Arabia [snip] the UAE, Jordan, etc.

Now, that doesn’t mean that [governments?] don’t also see them as a strategic threat. That was true of al-Qaeda and Osama bin-Laden as well, who was one of the early Saudi opponents of this, from the vantage point that, hard as it may be for us to understand it, that the Saudi government, that the Wahhabi extremism practiced by the Saudi government was not extreme enough, because–why?–it allowed United States soldiers onto the holy territory of Saudi Arabia, the holiest parts of the–the land that’s the holiest part of Islam. And in that context, that was the first demand of al-Qaeda. It wasn’t about Palestine. It wasn’t about anything else. It was about getting U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia. So the contradiction between the Saudi government seeing it, seeing ISIS, in this case, as a threat and the fact that it may be Saudis who are sponsoring it, that’s an old story. It’s true across the Arab Gulf, and I have no doubt that it’s still true today.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Phyllis Bennis from the Institute for Policy Studies, thank you very much for that report.

BENNIS: Thank you.

WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.