By Dr. Sander Diamond, professor of history
When al-Assid used poison gas against his people in Syria, President Obama threatened to remove the stockpiles by force. Instead, he opted for diplomacy. al-Assid “promised” to permit the removal of the gas stockpiles from his territory, which most observers believe was unworkable in the middle of a violent civil war. It was here that Washington, Moscow, and Tehran found common ground. The last thing any of them wanted was for poison gas to fall into the hands of al-Qaeda, which is freely operating in Syria. The upshot of these back door talks was the opening of a portal for further talks.
This coincided with the end of the presidential term of Iran’s belligerent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who many Iranians viewed as an embarrassment. He was replaced by Hassan Rouhani, who the West viewed as ‘moderate’ within the context of Iranian life. His international debut came at the United Nations, and rather than a tirade of Holocaust denials, calls for the destruction of Israel, and strident anti-Americanism, his remarks suggested that Tehran may be open to talks with Washington.
From Iran’s vantage point, they saw in Obama a president who may give diplomacy a chance, as well as a slight cooling in Washington’s relationship with Tel-Aviv. From Obama’s point of view, the time had arrived to test the waters with Iran after 34 years of isolation.
In November, Secretary of State Kerry and representatives of our Western allies met with their Iranian counterparts in Geneva. A six-month agreement was cobbled together: in exchange for Iran applying some braking power on the production of fissionable material in its far-flung facilities and re-opening these sites to outside inspectors, some of the most pressing sanctions will be lifted and Tehran will gain access to some of its frozen cash assets.
For those who applauded the agreement, it represented a major diplomatic success which transcends the details. President Obama expressed the hope that diplomacy could help turn the tide in the turbulent Middle East
Elsewhere, the Geneva Accord was greeted with anger and bitterness. The Israelis and Saudis saw the Accord as a concession to Iran that will tilt the balance of power in its favor. Both believe that Obama cannot be trusted and that his actions are not borne out of a lack of experience but a concerted effort to redirect U.S. foreign policy. Many in Obama’s party were also dismayed, as were members of the Republican Party. They were in complete agreement with Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, who said that now Iran “is a turn of a screwdriver away” from having WMDs.
For those with long memories, the Geneva Accord could not have been more poorly timed. September 2013 marked the 75th anniversary of the Munich Agreement, which added the word “appeasement” to the lexicon of diplomatic mistakes. For Iran’s most strident detractors, those who call the shots in Tehran are the sons of Hitler who will in time strike Israel and expand their theocratic vision to the entire Middle East. Obama and some in the West see it differently. They are well aware that the Supreme Leader calls the shots, but working with President Rouhani may lead to internal changes inside Iran and it is time to give diplomacy a chance. And testing the waters for six months hardly rises to the level of appeasement.
The Geneva Accord may come to little in six months. If the chatter out of Tehran can be believed, the Supreme Leader is not happy with the direction the new president has taken. And if Israeli intelligence is accurate, Iran will have atomic weapons by spring. Once again, the shifting sands of the Middle East are at work and talk of war is in the air. Obama knows that a massive strike against Iran by either the U.S. or Israel will trigger a major regional war. He believes that diplomacy can arrest a march toward war. As we prepare to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, we can only hope he is right.
By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history
The Middle East has long been the epicenter of complex problems that wash like waves into other regions. No different than his predecessors as far back as Truman, President Obama is faced with a complex nexus of interrelated problems and hard choices.
The Arab Spring has brought with it change, much of it unwelcomed in Washington. Under the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, the future of Egypt is uncertain. An Iran armed with atomic weapons is a dismal prospect. Yemen is in disarray, al-Qaeda doing its usual destructiveness. The prospect of an independent Palestinian State on the West Bank has moved to the back burner. The Sinai has fallen into total disorder. Hamas and Hezbollah will surely take advantage of the region’s problems, each being fed by Iran.
And then there is Syria, which presents an unimaginable host of problems that can destabilize the region even further. Much of Syria is in ruins, its ancient cities along the coastline demolished by the Bashar al-Assad regime’s air force, tanks, and fighting between paramilitary units and the regular army. Syria is sinking as a nation and the ability of its leader to rule over what was Syria two years ago is limited. But al-Assad still has a monopoly of power. He is being resupplied by the Russians and the Iranians, using Hezbollah fighters to put down the Opposition in the most brutal way.
Barring a bolt out of the blue, Syria is shaping up as the greatest foreign policy challenge of Obama’s presidency. One suspects his humanitarian instincts push him in one direction, his geo-political instincts in another.
After two wars in the region, he is mindful of the perils of getting involved in a civil war. In the words of The New York Times’ Tom Friedman, “If you torch it, you own it.” After a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is the last thing Obama wants. However, if the U.S. continues to stand on the sidelines and wait to see how the crisis unfolds, Obama will be accused of being heartless or too tepid.
Like many, Obama would like to see al-Assad pack and leave, but if he falls, the gates of hell will open in a region not known for moderation. There is the fear that once al-Assad is gone, Syria could be dismembered, further collapsing into chaos with Hezbollah moving into its western and southern sections, which Israel would not tolerate. Given the prospect of Syria falling into total chaos, dismembered, or worse, one has to question if some of Obama’s advisers want al-Assad to leave anytime soon.
Obama may be taking a leaf out of the Israeli handbook on the region: better the devil you know that the one you do not. If al-Assad emerges relatively intact and manages to reassert control, it will take years to rebuild a broken Syria. From a humanitarian point of view, this is hard to swallow. But it just may be a very hard reality, a bitter pill. As one Israeli said, the choice is between plague and cholera, both horrific but at least we know al-Assad, so-to-speak.
Letting the situation play itself out, standing on the sidelines may be the best choice, however distasteful. But al-Assad has to be put on notice: opening your arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and committing genocide on an unimaginable scale would be a game changer.
President Jorge L. Díaz-Herrera was one of more than 300 college CEOs to sign an open letter to President Obama and other policy leaders calling for tougher gun control laws and declaring their opposition to laws that would allow guns on campus.
The campaign was started by presidents Lawrence M. Schall of Oglethorpe University and Elizabeth Kiss of Agnes Scott College, both located in Atlanta, Ga. Presidents from mostly private, non-profit colleges have signed the letter, which was written in response to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 children and 6 adults.
Since the on-campus shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007, several states have sought to allow guns on campus even in opposition from college officials and faculty. After the Newtown massacre, some lawmakers called for teachers to have access to firearms in their classrooms.
But Díaz-Herrera and the other College Presidents for Gun Safety are demanding a crackdown on access to guns.
“Just 10 days after the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., gun violence claimed the lives of two first responders here in our own backyard in Webster—not far from our campus,” said Dr. Díaz-Herrera. “Clearly, something has to be done, as our letter states, ‘to ensure that current and future generations may live and learn in a country free from the threat of gun violence.’”
Here is a segment of the letter:
“We are college and university presidents. We are parents. We are Republicans, Democrats and Independents. We urge both our President and Congress to take action on gun control now. As a group, we do not oppose gun ownership. But, in many of our states, legislation has been introduced or passed that would allow gun possession on college campuses. We oppose such laws. We fully understand that reasonable gun safety legislation will not prevent every future murder. Identification and treatment of the mental health issues that lie beneath so many of the mass murders to which we increasingly bear witness must also be addressed.
“As educators and parents, we come together to ask our elected representatives to act collectively on behalf of our children by enacting rational gun safety measures, including:
• ensuring the safety of our communities by opposing legislation allowing guns on our campuses and in our classrooms;
• ending the gun show loophole, which allows for the purchase of guns from unlicensed sellers without a criminal background check;
• reinstating the ban on military-style semi-automatic assault weapons along with high-capacity ammunition magazines; and
• requiring consumer safety standards for all guns, such as safety locks, access prevention laws, and regulations to identify, prevent and correct manufacturing defects.
“The time has long since passed for silence and inaction on the issue of reasonable and rational gun safety legislation. We hereby request that our nation’s policy leaders take thoughtful and urgent action to ensure that current and future generations may live and learn in a country free from the threat of gun violence.”