Iran From 10,000 Feet

Simultaneously clutching his Nobel Peace Prize in one hand and George W. Bush’s preemptive strike doctrine in the other, Obama has straddled this no-man’s land about as well as any president possibly could.

This column appears in the February 2nd, 2012 edition of the Long Island Press.

Trunk to tail the elephants circle the ring while the four remaining clowns in the circus vamp, weep and honk their noses to the delight of the audience. The train travels from Iowa to New Hampshire, and then makes its way down the coast to Florida where the most recent performance went off without a hitch. With dozens more appearances planned for the upcoming weeks, the greatest show on Earth promises to keep the masses entertained for months to come.

Outside the alternate reality that is the American election season, however, a gathering storm is rapidly approaching, threatening to rip the stakes from the ground and bring the tent down upon all of us.

The deadliest game of chicken in history is being played in dark alleys with no headlights. Two cars careen toward each other, Iran in one and Israel in the other, while the world huddles close to see which one of them blinks first. But we are all more than spectators in this deadly contest, we are participants. The ever-expanding concentric circles of conflict that began with the Mossad and Hezbollah, extended to neighboring nations such as the United Arab Emirates and Syria, now encapsulate the United States, Europe, Russia and China.

In short, the stage is set for World War III. Damn, those Mayans were good!

Because the economy is still in the center ring, however, it’s the primary show the audience focuses on. We can see shadowy figures moving about in the periphery. We know they’re there, but our attention is diverted for the moment. Humanity be damned, it’s still the economy, stupid. It’s why every pronouncement of war, every threat to prevent a nuclear Iran, includes references to the disruption of the global oil supply.

But exactly how do you quantify the potential ramifications of a complete breakdown in both production and supply of oil in the Middle East, and more specifically Iran? The second oil shock of the 1970s, beginning with an Iranian oil-workers’ strike in 1978 and continuing through the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, is a useful portent of financial catastrophe. This two-year flare-up resulted in skyrocketing oil prices that reached $38 per barrel in 1980. Adjusted for today’s dollars, that’s around $90 per barrel.

Think about that for a moment. If the equivalent figure of $90 today thrust the global markets into utter chaos and drove the world deeper into recession in 1980, what effect would a new shock today have on the global economy, considering oil is consistently trading around $100 per barrel today? Obama doesn’t need to ask Jimmy Carter how that would work out.

This is why Europe and America have been rallying support to increase economic sanctions on Iran while Israel continues its effective covert assault on the power structure in Tehran. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner recently visited China to ask for their participation in a global embargo on trading with Iran. The problem there, of course, is that China receives approximately 10 percent of its oil from Iran—a figure projected to grow steadily over the next couple of decades as China attempts to break the coal habit. Geithner’s reception was as chilly as it was when he asked the Chinese to adjust their undervalued currency in an effort to stabilize the balance of trade between our nations. Add to the mix that China has no moral or political allegiance to Israel, and it’s easy to understand why Geithner would have had better luck talking to the Great Wall of China than its ruling class.

The political calculus in Washington is as complicated as ever. Obama has been able to walk the tightrope between America’s hawks and isolationists by surging our forces in Afghanistan while withdrawing them from Iraq, and allegedly killing Osama bin Laden while entertaining the possibility of dialogue with Tehran. Simultaneously clutching his Nobel Peace Prize in one hand and George W. Bush’s preemptive strike doctrine in the other, Obama has straddled this no-man’s land about as well as any president possibly could. But time is running out as the election draws ever nearer, which is why the war rhetoric is beginning to intensify. This diplomatic squeeze is lost only on mouth-breathing Americans whose eyes are glued to the spectacle in the center ring, as they await the outcome of each GOP primary as if it matters. The rest of the planet has adjusted to the darkness as it watches these war preparations very, very closely.

Here’s the current score. Europe has taken a decidedly aggressive stance by leading the way with harsh economic sanctions on Iran forcing the United States to follow suit perhaps more than it might have otherwise. China and Russia have little to gain by punishing Iran as they trade openly. Israel is not above taking matters into its own hands and striking Iran’s nuclear facilities but it requires more assurance from the United States that we will back its play. The less-than-cozy relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thwarts Israel’s next move, because acting unilaterally without U.S. support is as suicidal as doing nothing may someday prove to be.

 Saudi Arabia, which shares access to the strategically important Strait of Hormuz, also has little patience for Iran’s shenanigans; but it, like Iran’s allies in the area, has its own political and economic issues, and can hardly afford a conflict with any of the region’s stakeholders.

We are witnessing one of the greatest standstills of all time. The deciding vote, however, will likely come from none of the nations mentioned here because a new, more powerful force has emerged in the global landscape with the ability to tip the scales: the people.

From Occupy to the Arab Spring, the past year has shown that the most influential voice in world politics is that of the people. In this new interconnected world, the Iranian government’s clandestine policies and shadowy behavior are anachronistic. That’s not to say Israel and the United States don’t understand this potential, as both admit to stoking tensions within Iran to mobilize its youth in the hopes that they will lead to yet another revolution. If a fruit vendor in Tunisia can set off a series of events that changed the Arab world forever, the same can even happen in a nation as mysterious and closed-off as Iran. Dictators can be ousted and regimes can be toppled without deploying the U.S. military.

It’s why an untimely show of force against Iran would undermine the Iranian people’s naturally occurring dissatisfaction, shown by their willingness to protest the regime’s fraudulent elections and its hard-line stances that have wrought such economic hardship. This phenomenon has been occurring even before the most recent round of rigorous sanctions. In practice, imposing more stringent sanctions or military action may have the opposite of the desired effect by coalescing support for the Iranian government from within. Given the Iranians’ already poor economic circumstances, they may in fact see little distinction between enduring harsh sanctions and a blistering show of force.

Critics of the Obama administration have likened his stance on Iran as akin to that of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler with the Munich Pact in 1938. They claim that the United States is being hoodwinked by Iran’s leadership who will immediately use nuclear weapons against Israel once they possess the capability to do so. Most who have written about the subject, however, believe this is folly, but that it’s better to have an Iran without nukes than one with them. In the meantime, the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction might take a backseat to the mutually assured production of oil. In my mind, the specter of nuclear warfare is a singular endgame issue, not an ongoing strategic battle that dismisses the Chamberlain/Hitler analogy in favor of Kennedy/Kruschev. When both men drew their lines in the sand and realized the lines were in exactly the same spot, everyone knew where they stood during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Because the current leaders of Iran have publicly stated that they are committed to annihilating the state of Israel, they have legitimized the world’s fear of a nuclear Iran. But I would submit that the world doesn’t have an Iran problem, it has an Ahmadinejad problem. Were the U.S. to declare unequivocally that we will use force if Iran’s president denies UN inspectors in Iran or we discover that they have developed the capacity to use nuclear technology beyond domestic energy production, we would hardly be blamed for being the aggressor. But perhaps we should re-examine the role of sanctions and look at things differently because a free and prosperous people have a much greater ability to dictate policy in Iran than we outsiders ever will.

A desperate population with nothing to lose alters the equation of Mutually Assured Destruction and interrupts the natural evolution of the Arab Spring. It’s time to reverse the antiquated notion that a forcibly impoverished nation is ultimately obsequious to those nations that suppress it. President Obama should call upon the Congress and the world to lift all economic sanctions on Iran because sanctions starve the people, not the government. Moreover, the people have proven they know how to seize the opportunity for self determination.

Then we can all go back to watching the circus.


Main Photo: Associated Press

Occupy Wall Street

While American news organizations and traditional media outlets provided wall-to-wall coverage of the uprisings from Tunisia to Libya, they have been remarkably, if not scarily silent about the unrest occurring right here at home.

“Eyes on!” shouted a young man being dragged away, his hands cuffed behind his back. “We’re watching,” yelled several others as the moment quickly dissolved into chaos. It was hard to know where to look. In the center of Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan a sea of blue descended upon another man, guilty of refusing to stand up when ordered. He too emerged in handcuffs, as did the screaming, crying woman who tried futilely to pry the gloved hands of the NYPD officers from the man now barely visible under the blue pile. As several protestors in handcuffs were lined up on the curb next to the NYPD command center vehicle, the crowd erupted in chants of “Shame!” and “The whole world is watching!”

Only it isn’t.

This was the scene around 10 o’clock in the morning, day four of the leaderless protest known as “Occupy Wall Street.” The protest is a loosely defined coalition of mostly young people raging against the death of American democracy and consolidation of wealth into the hands of the top 1 percent. In fact, many simply refer to themselves as “the 99 percent.” And while they may indeed represent ninety-nine percent of America in financial standing, the more concrete parallel might be that ninety-nine percent of America has no idea this is even happening.

“If this was a Tea Party rally, Fox News would be here with us day and night,” says Julian (pictured below), a student and seasonal worker who flew in from Oregon after learning about the protest on Twitter. Like the others, Julian has no intention of leaving Wall Street any time soon. So serious is he about this commitment that he purchased a one-way ticket. Julian was compelled to join the rally because of what he calls a “crisis of democracy” and says he is “worried about the direction of the country.”

I had only heard rumblings of a gathering down on Wall Street this past weekend when the protest was already underway. Though officially organized by no one single group or person, Canadian magazine Adbusters—whose stated mission is to “coax people from spectator to participant” in the quest for a “world in which the economy and ecology resonate in balance”—is credited as the wind in the sails of the Occupy Wall Street protest. What is clear is that Occupy Wall Street is designed to harness the grassroots and spiritual zeitgeist of the Arab Spring, which has spread like wildfire throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East.

Yet while American news organizations and traditional media outlets provided wall-to-wall coverage of the uprisings from Tunisia to Libya, they have been remarkably, if not scarily silent about the unrest occurring right here at home. I personally began following what was happening on Wall Street on Facebook beginning Sunday evening and was as captivated by the event as I was by the lack of coverage surrounding it. On Tuesday morning I set out to Manhattan to begin my day with the protestors.

It didn’t take long to hear the steady, rhythmic drumbeats and chanting as I passed through the turnstile and ascended the stairs of the Wall Street station. Slowly making their way through a gauntlet of bike racks and officers were scores of young people shouting “We are the ninety-nine percent” with “and so are you” being offered in a call-and-response echo. Though already into the fourth day of protest, the crowd was ebullient, even smiling and polite to the officers and those passing by.  This morning they were dispatched from their base camp in Zuccotti Park to continue raising awareness and remind the scurrying Wall Street crowd of their presence during the morning rush.

As the crowd snaked around the bike racks on Broad Street and picked its way back toward Broadway, every moment was being streamed live by two men in thin, red parkas—one carrying a camera, the other monitoring the feed on a laptop. As they paced backwards and looked warily about, I noticed a member of the NYPD on the other side of the barricade also filming every moment of the protest. I started toward the man holding the laptop but he averted his eyes and motioned slightly to the cameraman in front of him who was quite clearly the spokesperson for the pair.

When asked what this gathering was about, the cameraman said these were just “people with a common set of principles” seeking to highlight “fundamental, systemic issues.” He had a slight accent and spoke in a measured and purposeful way about the similarities between Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring and the uprising in Spain, which he also attended. But, he noted, this protest was “becoming a first amendment issue about the right to assemble.”

With this he was referencing attempts by the police to scuttle the demonstration by blowing the dust off an antiquated law that prohibits the wearing of masks by two or more people during a demonstration and confiscating supplies such as tents and gasoline for generators used to power cameras, laptops and phones. A handful of protestors had already been arrested for resisting these attempts and the cameraman was clearly concerned about each subtle turn of event.

At this point I decided to loop down around Broadway instead of hobbling along with the slow-moving group to capture the scene of their return to Zuccotti Park, now dubbed “Liberty Plaza” by the organizers. As most of the thru streets were barricaded off, I inquired of an officer as to the fastest way to beat the crowd to the park. As I approached him I couldn’t help but overhear him comment to the uniformed officer next to him, “This is some killer overtime.”

The sight of bearded young men with instruments and tattooed young women clad in tie-dyed shirts and plastic parkas was casually anachronistic and out of step with the modern, business-like efficiency of lower-Manhattan. Blue tarps covered cardboard signs and coolers. Some milled about with trays of sandwiches and fruit, eager to feed their cohorts. As the rest of their group crossed the street into the park, they were greeted with applause and the square again began to swell with their ranks. The happy homecoming was to be short-lived.

As the protestors reunited I was speaking with a man from Queens named Akio who said he was there “to offer smiles, hugs and morale” when the police suddenly converged in the square. Addressing the group with a bullhorn (an action that resulted in the arrest of a protestor leading a prayer the day before) an officer told the crowd to move so the police could confiscate the tarps. Apparently tents are illegal as well though these could hardly be considered such; another thinly veiled attempt to break the spirit of the protest as by now it was raining steadily in New York. One of the protestors who sat silently on top of one of the tarps wasn’t budging. Unfortunately, the NYPD weren’t either.

Within moments the scene turned hostile as officers peeled him from his perch, which was met with a mixed reaction from the crowd. Cries of “Obey!” and “Don’t give them a reason!” were mixed with “fucking pigs!” and “courtesy, professionalism and respect!”—a dig at the NYPD slogan. After a handful of arrests and angry exchanges the morning molestation of the movement appeared to come to an end.

Then, in the center of the Zuccotti Park, a man stood atop one of the planters and addressed the crowd; several were still angry, some were in tears and others just milled about in disbelief. Gradually the attention shifted to the speaker, although it was difficult to hear him as his back was turned to me at first. But I managed to hear enough to know that he was imploring the group to stay strong and stay focused.

I raised my camera to capture a glimpse of him as perhaps there was a nucleus to this thing after all and got off a decent shot only then recognizing him as the cameraman I had spoken to earlier. Confident he had control of the situation once more, the cameraman stepped down and resumed his role of real-time, anonymous documentarian—true to the moment and true to the movement.

As the crowd exhaled I stepped back to pack up my own camera, but not before deleting his picture—true to the moment and true to the movement.