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Middle East Press ( 10 Oct 2020, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Middle East Press On Biden Presidency, Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Malcolm X: New Age Islam's Selection, 10 October 2020

By New Age Islam Edit Bureau

10 October 2020

• Will A Biden Presidency Be Good For The Middle East?

By Ellen Laipson

• Between A Rock And Hard Place: Iran’s Dilemma In Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

By Ali Hashem

• Hezbollah Is Buying Time with Farcical Lebanese-Israeli Maritime Border Talks

By Makram Rabah

• Back to the Future: BLM Overcomes Obama and Returns to Malcolm X

By Hamid Dabashi


Will A Biden Presidency Be Good For The Middle East?

By Ellen Laipson

October 9, 2020


Presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks in North Carolina on 23 September (AFP)


A Biden administration might see an opportunity to demonstrate, without any major military commitments that the US can play a productive role in resolving disputes.

The world may think that America is falling apart at the seams, but it's still worth spending some time preparing for the plausible and even probable scenario of a Biden administration in place in January 2021. A robust team of experienced foreign policy scholars and practitioners are hard at work thinking through how Joe Biden could design and implement a post-Trump foreign policy.

The Middle East is not the centre of gravity of these deliberations about America's role in the world. In fact, for more than a decade, leaders across party lines have suggested that it's time to rethink and scale back American commitments in the region.

Mostly driven by the fatigue of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, but also affected by greater energy independence and a more nationalistic view of US security responsibilities globally, the Trump administration has gone farther than the Obama administration in signalling this shift. Across the national security community, a growing consensus that the US needs to organise itself for threats in the Asia-Pacific region also has fed into this thinking, from the 'pivot' of the Obama years to the hard-edged geopolitical showdown with China of the current administration.

The countervailing trends relate first to Iran as an enduring threat to regional stability, from its nuclear activities to its entrenched positions in Lebanon and Syria, and its opportunistic activities in Yemen. The Obama administration had hoped to build on the 2015 nuclear agreement to defuse tensions with Tehran; Trump went in the opposite direction, but now lurches between aggressive rhetoric and vague hopes that diplomatic engagement can occur.

The second trend is the new pattern of normalisation between Israel and some Gulf states, that the Trump administration is eager to tout as its diplomatic success, notwithstanding the fact that the process began well before 2017. It is good news, for sure, but for those who see a higher moral imperative for the US to focus on the Palestine question, the normalisation agreements are a sort of consolation prize for the larger failure of the Kushner "peace plan."

So how would a President Biden navigate these waters? It is important to look not only at the particulars of each Middle East trouble spot, but also the more general way Biden wants to frame American foreign policy if elected.

He recognises that he can't turn the clock back to 2016, and has to deal with some of the broken crockery of Trump's bullish behaviour. Those broader principles include restoring alliances, giving priority to democracies as a response to rising authoritarianism, recalibrating military commitments to align with fiscal imperatives and working in multilateral forums on the transcendent issues of climate change, global health and terrorism.

Alongside these external goals, Biden will work to restore trust within US society and inside the US government. He will work to rein spire public servants to be able to perform their duties in the national security arena in an apolitical way.

The Middle East is not an acute arena for alliance repair work, compared to Europe and Asian allies. Biden will be able to re-establish positive personal relationships with key Middle East leaders. He will have to deal with strong sentiment in Congress that that relationship may not reflect 21st century values, despite the decades long economic and security partnership. While many leaders of friendly states may well prefer Trump's re-election, they will adapt in order to keep the US engaged in the region. For many states, the idea of US retrenchment is alarming.

Given a likely renewed emphasis on democracy and human rights, the Middle East will present some challenges for a Biden administration. It will support the small number of democratising states such as Tunisia, Morocco, and Jordan. Lebanon may be an opportunity for a new team to help the beleaguered state with the daunting challenge of restoring trust and taking some radical steps in governance and political reform.

Iran also is a tricky test for a Biden administration. Simply restoring US adherence to the 2015 nuclear agreement will not suffice; Biden's nonproliferation experts might take the lead in proposing amendments to the accord and working with allies to salvage it, while Iran's regional behaviour would be the responsibility of regional officials in the State and Defense Departments.

Syria is also fraught with history and a present reality that is not conducive to any early American diplomatic success. Likely to be seen by historians as Obama's greatest foreign policy failure, Biden will have to determine if there is anything to be done to bring closure in the civil war. His advisors have been particularly critical of Trump's treatment of Syrian Kurdish allies in the fight against Daesh, and may focus on providing support to the areas of Syria not under government control. But it is likely to play a supporting, not leading, role in efforts to resume negotiations over the future of the country, under UN or Russian leadership.

While the Eastern Mediterranean issues may not affect American interests the way the Israel-Palestine question, or Gulf security, have over many decades, it is still an important new source of uncertainty involving Nato allies and major Middle East partners of the US. A Biden administration might well see an opportunity to demonstrate, without any major military commitments, that the US can play a productive role in resolving regional disputes and avoiding larger conflicts.


Ellen Laipson, a former vice chair of the US's National Intelligence Council, is director at George Mason University in Virginia. -Syndication Bureau


Between A Rock and Hard Place: Iran’s Dilemma in Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

By Ali Hashem

Oct 9, 2020


An Armenian soldier of the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabagh aims his Kalashnikov assault rifle as he stands in a trench at the frontline on the border with Azerbaijan near the town of Martakert, July 6, 2012. Photo by KAREN MINASYAN/AFP/GettyImages.


In a country where a quarter of the population belongs to the Azeri ethnicity, over 400 miles of border are shared with Azerbaijan and the official version of Islam in both countries is Shiism, it shouldn’t be a very difficult choice to make when the northern neighbor goes to war.

However, there are many reasons for Iran to think twice before siding with Azerbaijan in its recent conflict with Armenia.

Armenia shares about 27 miles of border with the Islamic Republic and plays a positive role as the only Christian neighbor to the sanction-laden country.

Iranians of Armenian origin make up the overwhelming majority of the country’s Christian minority, which number more than 150,000 of the total population of 84 million. As for the Azeris, there is no accurate number, but according to several sources it varies between 10 million and 20 million.

In the city of Tabriz in the north of Iran, dozens of Azeri Iranians headed out into the streets slamming the state’s neutral position on the war, while others demonstrated in Tehran chanting slogans in support of the army of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

The official Iranian stance — expressed by the Foreign Ministry on several occasions — has been to call on both parties to practice restraint, offering to mediate.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told Reuters earlier this week, “Iran has prepared a plan with a specific framework containing details after consultations with both sides of the dispute, Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as regional states and neighbors, and will pursue this plan."

It is important to note that Iran's official stance, despite offering mediation and refraining from taking sides, recognizes the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region as an Azeri territory and calls on Armenia to withdraw from it.

This was expressed by Ali Rabiei, spokesman of the Iranian presidency, and also unofficially but remarkably by Ali Akbar Velayati, international affairs adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, who expressed this view to Kayhan daily, the newspaper whose editor in chief is believed to be one of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s confidants.

Khamenei, an Azeri-Iranian himself, has yet to comment on the developments, but a number of his representatives in Azeri-populated northwestern Iran issued a statement declaring support for Azerbaijan in the conflict.

The signatories — Khamenei’s representatives in the provinces of Ardabil, East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan and Zanjan — stressed, "There is no doubt that Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan and its government's move to recapture the region is completely legal, according to Sharia, and in line with four resolutions of the United Nation's Security Council.”

Moreover, Khamenei’s representative in the Republic of Azerbaijan, Ali Akbar Ajagnejad, said during a speech Oct. 3 that he is ready to go to Nagorno-Karabakh and fight beside the Azeri youth until he is martyred.

For the moment, the Iranian stance seems to be inconsistent, but the fact is that decision-makers in Tehran are counting on time to get them a solution that would rid them from the urge to take a side, for whatever the side they take, there are going to be some bitter repercussions. 

If Tehran decides to support Armenia, then the internal implications aren’t going to be easy, given the wide support Azerbaijan enjoys among the Azeris inside Iran; besides, it goes without saying that ties with Azerbaijan will receive a blow.

This is going to give Israel, which has backed Azerbaijan by selling arms, additional leverage on Iran’s borders. Just a few weeks ago, Israel reached a normalization agreement with both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, giving it an unprecedented reach to the waters of the Persian Gulf.

On Sept. 30, a drone that entered Iranian airspace was downed by the country’s air defenses. Iran’s concerns over Azerbaijan’s drones is related mainly to the fact that most of Baku’s drones are bought from Israel.

Back in 2014, Iran blamed Azerbaijan, without naming it, for being the base of an Israeli drone that Tehran says to have shot down near the highly sensitive nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz in central Iran.

Although Iranian officials didn't specify Azerbaijan, they said the drone came from a “former Soviet republic to the north.” Azerbaijan's government has denied the claim calling it a "provocation."

Another sensitive element that makes Iran want this war to finish before it gets to the point of no return are the recent reports about the transferring of Syrian fighters by Turkey to fight alongside Azerbaijan.

A report by Al-Monitor’s Sultan Kanj confirmed these reports, highlighting the fact that Turkish-backed Syrian militants are turning into a regional task force ready to intervene wherever Ankara is involved. This itself is a matter of concern to Tehran, which does not accept having such forces close to its border. To Iran, this is a threat for stability on its northern border and a weight for Turkey it is unlikely to accept in its backyard.

Moreover, there are reports that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is looking to take advantage of Russia being bogged down in conflicts elsewhere to claim a bigger role in this conflict.

The flock of fighters to both sides of the border is in fact a matter of concern to Tehran. Christian Armenian fighters heading from Lebanon and Syria to Armenia to fight alongside Armenian forces in Artsakh — as the region is known in Armenian — is also a long-term threat for stability and brings close to home the fragility of the Levant.

The Armenian-Azeri rivalry outside Iran might for many reasons spill over the borders of the Islamic Republic, and this is what Tehran is anticipating by sending forces to the border areas.

The promise of stability that Iran’s Islamic establishment has always made to justify its involvement in conflicts away from home, such as in Syria and Iraq, is now under threat, especially with the cocktail of players on the other side of the border.

The economy is another element that worries the Iranian decision-makers, with pressure mounting day after day amid additional US sanctions. The plan to link the Iranian southern port city of Chabahar to Russia through a railway crossing through Azerbaijan creates more reasons for concern in Tehran. While on the Armenian side, a 90-mile-long gas pipeline makes it clear that this time Iran can't cherry-pick its position based on its own preferences alone.

Back in the 1990s, the Karabakh conflict created a dilemma of another type for Iran.

Tehran mediated between the two newly established countries, though it was more on the Azerbaijani side. This is reflected in the diaries of late President Hashemi Rafsanjani, and in several other accounts by Iranian officials who witnessed that period. According to a report by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-affiliated Mashregh News, Iran facilitated the transfer of hundreds of Afghani fighters to Azerbaijan to fight alongside the government of late President Haydar Aliyev, the father of current President Ilham Aliyev. However, in less than two years, Aliyev’s alliance with the Iranians came to an end, and he called on them to leave and started a crackdown on their main ally, the Islamic party, whose leadership was arrested for allegations it is financed by Tehran.

After 1994, Iran shifted to be more on Armenia’s side due to the political differences with Aliyev. Yet Iranian volunteers continue to flock to Azerbaijan to fight beside the Azeris in the war with Armenia, and many Iranian fighters were killed and buried in several locations around the war front.


Hezbollah Is Buying Time With Farcical Lebanese-Israeli Maritime Border Talks

By Makram Rabah

09 October 2020

Lebanon’s recent announcement that it would start talks with Israel to demarcate its maritime border was welcomed by many. But on closer inspection, the move is a farce that has little chance of solving Lebanon’s problems.

In theory, the demarcation of the contested areas between Lebanon and Israel will allow both sides to benefit from the oil and gas fields on their border and encourage international oil companies to invest in the area. This is especially important to Lebanon given that any injection of funds would help its crumbling economy and stop the rapid devaluation of the currency and the accompanying inflation.

On face value, Hezbollah’s agreement to the talks may appear to be a softening of its position on Israel. The Trump administration, which mediated the process, can also present the talks as another diplomatic achievement following the normalization deals between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain.

However, a closer inspection reveals the talks are a farcical attempt by Hezbollah to ease mounting pressure against it. Hezbollah and its Iranian overlords are trying to buy time amid biting US financial sanctions, repeated Israeli attacks against its fighters, and the recent mysterious explosion in their military facilities.

It is no fluke that Iran, through Hezbollah, has sanctioned the demarcation to commence a mere month from the US presidential elections. Iran hopes Democratic nominee Joe Biden will win, facilitating the reinstatement of the 2015 nuclear deal.

The Trump administration secured the talks by going through Nabih Berri, the Shia speaker of parliament who heads the Hezbollah-allied Amal party. This was a baffling mistake, as it gave Hezbollah a public relations victory, suggesting that it needed to be consulted with to achieve progress. Instead, the proper move would have been for the US to engage directly with the executive branch, which has the constitutional right to negotiate demarcation issues.

The talks themselves may also aid Hezbollah and its Iranian backers. Hezbollah’s position in the country is currently so entrenched that any new sources of funds from gas revenues could be hijacked by the organization, cementing its hold over the Lebanese state.

What will take place on October 14 – the date outlined for the talks at the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) headquarters on the border – will not just be talks about merely demarcating the border? Instead, the talks are a clear message that Iran wants to pursue its version of normalization with Israel. But unlike the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which have normalized diplomatic relations with Israel, Iran’s approach is not based on normal relations. As with the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran likes to present itself as open to diplomacy while in fact using the grace period from talks to gain more ground through expanding its militia network. Even if it engages the US and Israel in any forms of talks, Iran will refuse to disarm its Hezbollah or work toward empowering Lebanon. Instead, Iran’s approach means tightening its grip over all aspect of the Lebanese state, or what remains of it. Rather than normalization, Iran is willing to engage in just demarcation while advancing its aims elsewhere.

Even then, Hezbollah has only showed openness to demarcating borders that do not undermine its interests. There has been no progress made on the disputed Shebaa Farms, a 28 square kilometer region right on the nexus of the Syrian-Lebanese-Israeli border, which technically belongs to Syria and is currently occupied by Israel. The Shebaa Farms has long provided Hezbollah with the pretext to keep its arms and therefore putting it at the center of the demarcation talks would have given the Lebanese people, or at least those fighting for them, the chance to demand the decommissioning of Hezbollah’s arms.

Nevertheless, even if these maritime demarcation talks do not remove the Shebaa pretext, they have proven that diplomatic channels are the best recourse for Lebanon to achieve its long-term interests. Yet , the Lebanese state is nowhere to be found, and its diplomatic channels have been completely hijacked by Hezbollah and its allies who have alienated and ostracized the international community. This includes Emmanuel Macron’s France, which has expressed eagerness to help.

The August 4 Beirut Port blast did not only destroy the eastern part of the capital but it also killed and injured many of the families of the diplomatic corps in Lebanon. This corps always went out of its way to help Lebanon, was underserving of a phone call or even a consolation letter to check up on their children and spouses, will hold this intended lapse to heart.

The Israeli-Iranian demarcation, or possible normalization, using Lebanon has proven yet again that Hezbollah has no red lines, and that if the Lebanese truly want their country to become worthy again, they should reconnect with the international community and ask their assistance to redraw a new map that leads them to reclaim their lost state. Ultimately demarcation, or the illusion of it, should not side-line the ever-important demands for Lebanon’s neutrality and disassociation – the only exit from Lebanon’s current inferno.


Back to The Future: BLM Overcomes Obama And Returns To Malcolm X

By Hamid Dabashi

9 Oct 2020

As the news of Donald Trump and his wife Melania having contracted COVID-19 sends shudders down the spine of American and global politics, steady remains the perils and promises of the most principled and revolutionary uprising of this nation: Black Lives Matter.

So let us disregard the static noise of the daily news, and the Trump campaign’s desperate attempts to turn the president’s coronavirus diagnosis to electoral advantage, and focus on what endures.

On September 1, a few weeks before he casually told the violent white supremacist gangs among his supporters “to stand back and stand by” – presumably until given further instructions – Trump went out of his way to denounce the Black Lives Matter uprising. “It’s so discriminatory,” Trump said of what is rightly considered perhaps “the largest movement in US history”. It is a “Marxist organisation,” he warned his supporters.

A “Marxist organisation?” If only: the leaders of the Black Lives Matter have their work cut out for them.

The Long Arch Of History

History does not progress on a steady path. It zigzags, regresses, stumbles, until it reaches the point of an epistemic shift.

In Egypt, the charismatic thunder of Gamal Abdel Nasser eventually led to the dictatorship of Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. In India, the saintly and legendary figure of Mahatma Gandhi leading an anti-colonial struggle eventually resulted in the murderous Hindu-supremacist fascism of Narendra Modi. In Iran, the anti-colonial struggle led by Mohammad Mosaddegh eventually gave birth to the reactionary Islamic Republic ruled by a platoon of militant mullahs. In Syria, the promising political philosophy of Michel Aflaq eventually resulted in the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad.

We can continue apace on this list, but the point here is the United States, where the revolutionary charisma of Malcolm X gave birth to the reactionary liberalism of Barack Obama.

American liberals sickened by Trump’s presidency are celebrating the speech Obama gave at the Democratic Party’s national convention in August, in which he tearfully endorsed his former vice president, Joe Biden, as a defining moment for their agenda to defeat Trump and restore “American dignity”.

But American dignity cannot be “restored” by electing a washed-up liberal apparatchik like Biden. American dignity, today more than ever, is in the principled and dignified Black Lives Matter uprising. Obama and his endorsement of Biden are nothing but impediments to a far superior politics of liberation unfolding on the streets and in the critical consciousness of the best of Americans.

Obama Is A Dead End

Trump is the worst of America, but he is not alone. About one out of two eligible voters voted for him in 2016 and, however the 2020 election turns out, he still commands the loyalties of millions of Americans who share his unrepentant racism and bigotry. Trump represents racist fascism deeply rooted in American society and history.

Against this engrained racism rose the Black Lives Matter movement – ethically principled, morally righteous, and with the mighty power of history on its side. But the movement’s struggle is against not only Trump, but also the false figure of Obama and what he represents.

“Young black people have exploded in rebellion over the grotesque killing of George Floyd,” writes Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in a recent opinion piece for The New York Times, “we are now witnessing the broadest protest movement in American history. And yet the response of black elected officials has been cautious and uninspired.”

Taylor, who is a professor of African-American studies at Princeton University, is being very polite, circumspect, and generous. The response of the Black elected officials led by Obama to the movement has been positively reactionary, bordering on a conscious betrayal of what the Black Lives Matter uprising can achieve.

Professor Taylor rightly accuses both the Congressional Black Caucus and Obama of trying to push the Black Lives Matter uprising into the tepid and largely futile sideways of electoral politics, which has historically acted like a diversionary tactic to stifle and dissipate any progressive act of political uprising.

Futility Of Electoral Politics

For the historic unfolding of the Black Lives Matter uprising, Obama is not the solution but a problem. Here is why: What we are witnessing in Black Lives Matter today is an historic shift back to Malcolm X, bypassing the generation that had culminated in Obama’s presidency of liberal imperialism.

Historically, except for the towering figure of Malcolm X, the civil rights movement was afflicted with a debilitating parochialism that disregarded the global scene, bar a limited concern for the global consequences of the Vietnam War.

The legendary speech Martin Luther King Jr delivered on racism, militarism and poverty at the Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, for example, was the only occasion when he considered the more global frame of the Civil Rights Movement. And his equivocal position on the apartheid state of Israel, even disregarding the forged letter the Zionists have attributed to him, remains a serious compromise to his moral standing.

But today, with figures like Alice Walker, Cornel West, and Angela Davis, we have a far more global awareness of injustice evident in the Black Lives Matter’s position on militarism and its Zionist gestation. This fact takes the Black Lives Matter movement right back to the road map Malcolm X charted for the future of Black liberation – not just the US, but Africa, Latin America, and Asia were the domains of the revolutionary thinking of Malcolm X.

Against the grain of this global understanding of injustice that is at the core of the Black Lives Matter uprising, the centrist electoral politics that Obama aggressively peruses is an Achilles’ Heel of the movement and a false subterfuge for a far superior and urgent critical thinking and massive social protests.

Consider the lamentations of Cornel West when it comes to the sad legacy of Obama: “We hit the streets again with Black Lives Matter and other groups and went to jail for protesting against police killing black youth. We protested when the Israeli Defense Forces killed more than 2,000 Palestinians [including 550 children] in 50 days. Yet Obama replied with words about the difficult plight of police officers … and the additional $225m in financial support of the Israeli army. Obama said not a mumbling word about the dead Palestinian children but he did call Baltimore black youth ‘criminals and thugs’.”

Electoral politics gave us Obama 12 years ago, and now it is giving us his female version in Kamala Harris. Two reactionary liberals, fanatical centrists, steadfast Zionists, one of them allowed a violent and militarised police force to target Black communities with impunity under his watch, the other aided and abetted the mass incarceration and criminalisation of young Black men throughout her career. Obama and Harris are burying the memory of Malcolm X and turning his charismatic presence into a museum relic.

Bypassing Obama and his ilk, we are witness to a seismic change in American politics and Black Lives Matter is the very heartbeat of it. There is a new generation of bold and brilliant leaders, as Professor Taylor reminds us, “women like Mary Hooks from Southerners on New Ground in Atlanta and Miski Noor and Kandace Montgomery of the Black Vision Collective in Minneapolis” who are rearticulating an entirely different vision of their America. The world must bypass the liberal drumming up of the centrist reactionaries like Obama, Biden and Harris, and listen to these younger leaders.

Today the critical links between the generation of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, WEB DuBois, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, Medgar Evers, Ruby Bridges and countless others and the younger leaders of the Black Lives Matter are the towering figures of Cornel West, Angela Davis, and Alice Walker – all of them unequivocally among the leading voices speaking bravely for the justice of the Palestinian cause.  This is not just for the justice of the Palestinian cause. This is equally for the justice of Black Lives Matter.


Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He received a dual PhD in Sociology of Culture and Islamic Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 1984, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University.




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