It's a Sabotage

Iran’s hard-liners are using mass executions to undermine the nuclear deal.

Negotiations between Iran and the world powers will determine not just the future of Iran's nuclear program, but also whether moderate forces can consolidate their tentative hold on power and shape the country's direction for years to come. If Iranian President Hassan Rouhani secures a nuclear deal that delivers sanctions relief and boosts the economy, he will validate his argument that reconciliation with the outside world benefits Iran and unlock the possibility of far-reaching domestic reform. If the talks fail, however, hard-liners will have the ammunition they need to undercut the new president and shift the political pendulum back in their favor. 

With so much at stake, Iran's hard-liners are determined to sabotage Rouhani at every turn. Their latest effort appears aimed at spoiling the international community's appetite for diplomacy: In a deeply troubling turn, Iran's judiciary -- which is not under the control of the Rouhani administration -- has dramatically increased the number of executions in the country. At least 500 people were executed last year, according to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, while at least another 176 have been hanged so far in 2014.

Rouhani has thus far insulated himself from criticism on nuclear negotiations by gaining the backing of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. While Khamenei is more closely aligned with the hard-liners and is skeptical of diplomacy, his shift can be partially attributed to the need to shore up political legitimacy in the wake of the stolen 2009 presidential election and subsequent crackdown on Green Movement activists. If Khamenei openly denied the Iranian people's will yet again, he would risk deepening political fissures that could threaten the survival of the regime. Instead, the supreme leader has gone along with Rouhani's diplomacy, gambling that he will either be credited with helping secure a nuclear deal, or that the negotiations will collapse and the West will impose new sanctions, giving him an excuse to rein in Rouhani and his moderate allies.

Rather than directly challenge Rouhani -- and by extension Khamenei -- on the nuclear issue, the hard-liners have instead worked to stymie domestic reform. Overcoming their obstruction will likely depend on striking a nuclear deal that strengthens moderate forces and vindicates the new president's leadership. If the threat of war remains, hard-liners will be able to further perpetuate Iran's security-dominated political atmosphere in order to hinder domestic reform. Similarly, if sanctions continue, middle-class Iranians that could form the core of a democratic movement will continue to bear the brunt of the country's economic plight. 

Iran's hard-liners have bet their political future on the hope that the international community will fall into their trap. The spike in executions -- which frequently target alleged drug offenders, as well as political opponents and religious minorities -- has been overseen by the head of the judiciary, Sadeq Larijani. The Larijani family represents a formidable political bloc in Iran: Sadeq and his four brothers all hold prominent positions in Iran's political establishment. Sadeq's brother Ali currently heads Iran's parliament, which is also dominated by hard-liners, ensuring that the Larijanis exert a powerful influence over two very powerful institutions.

But if Rouhani is successful and fulfills many of his campaign promises, moderates have a strong shot at winning the parliamentary elections in 2016 and booting Ali Larijani from his speakership. Hence, the Larijanis and their hard-line allies have added motivation to ensure that Rouhani fails. The Iranian people, unfortunately, are suffering the consequences.

If Rouhani openly takes on the conservatives over human rights abuses, he will have opened a new front in this political war -- but one in which he does not enjoy Khamenei's support. This in turn could overextend his political capital and limit his ability to get a nuclear deal. If he chooses to deprioritize human rights and stay silent in the face of these abuses -- which appears to be the case -- the situation is likely to deteriorate even further, and the Green Movement veterans and reformist-oriented voters, who make up an important portion of his base, will be jeopardized.

The rising number of executions also presents the world community with a dilemma. If the United States and Europe use the human rights violations as a justification to punish Iran with sanctions, the hard-liners will get their excuse to end nuclear negotiations. But if the world ignores the abuses, the hard-liners may further intensify the violations to beget a response. 

This balancing act will be difficult for both the Rouhani government and the international community. Ignoring the human rights abuses cannot be an option, nor can cancellation of diplomacy. In the near term, diplomats can shine a spotlight on these abuses and push for them to stop -- if the international community specifically calls out the conservative-controlled judiciary as the responsible party, the hard-liners will be put on the defensive. Their effort to pass the responsibility for their abuses to the moderates will have failed.

In this process, dialogue is a far more effective method of pressure than threats. European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton's recent trip to Iran serves as a prominent example. While nuclear negotiations were the primary purpose of her trip, Ashton pressed Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on human rights and was able to meet with Iranian women's rights activists at the Austrian Embassy. The world also has other avenues of  highlighting abuses and pressing for change: U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Ahmed Shaheed just issued a new report outlining concerns with the human rights situation in Iran, and should continue his important work. 

This balancing act also shows the importance of reaching a nuclear accord -- and doing so quickly. The sooner a nuclear deal is struck, the sooner the hard-liners' trap will fall apart.



Mahmoud Abbas and the 'Jewish State'

In refusing to recognize Israel as the “Jewish state,” the Palestinian leader is denying a fact that even Yasser Arafat was willing to admit.

On my desk sits a replica of a tourist guide printed in 1924 by the Supreme Muslim Council of Jerusalem, the highest Muslim communal body in Palestine. Thousands of travelers to the Holy Land in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s learned from this guide that Solomon's Temple, the holiest site in Judaism, was located on the site now occupied by the Haram al-Sharif, or "Noble Enclosure," which includes the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque.

The fact that the head of the Supreme Muslim Council was Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Britain-appointed mufti of Jerusalem and father of Palestinian nationalism who later infamously collaborated with the Nazis, lent special credence to this statement of Muslim recognition of historic Jewish connection to Jerusalem.

Flash forward to July 2000, when President Bill Clinton hosted a fateful peace summit at Camp David. In one critical encounter, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat -- who effectively inherited the mantle of leadership from him -- rejected what his mentor had affirmed decades earlier. As Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross later recalled, Arafat told Clinton that Solomon's Temple was never in Jerusalem. If any Jewish temple existed, Arafat suggested, it was in the West Bank town of Nablus. The summit collapsed in acrimony. Within weeks, Palestinians launched the Second Intifada, which cost thousands of lives and dealt prospects for peace a terrible blow.

As President Barack Obama prepares to host Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on Monday, amid a violent flare-up of tensions between Israel and Islamic extremists in Gaza, history may be poised to repeat itself. Once again, a Palestinian leader is taking an even more rejectionist position than his predecessor.

Today's issue is the question of the "Jewish state." This is shorthand for Israel's demand that Palestinians specifically accept that the goal of current diplomacy is the mutual recognition of two independent, sovereign states -- Palestine, the nation-state of the Palestinian people, and Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish people. Abbas affirmed last week that he would flatly refuse such a formula: "No way," he said. The fact that he is, as Obama has said, the most moderate Palestinian leader Israel has ever dealt with, only lends gravity to the fact that he has adopted such a hard-line view.

On the surface, it is difficult to understand what all the ruckus is about. Israel, of course, was built by Jews as a haven for Jews. The 1947 U.N. resolution that gave international imprimatur to the partition of British-mandated Palestine mentioned the phrase "Jewish state" dozens of times. Surveys over the last decade by respected Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki show that 40 to 52 percent of Palestinians would accept recognition of Israel as the "Jewish state" -- levels of support, it is important to note, achieved without Abbas's public endorsement.

Even Arafat, the uber-nationalist, understood this. The same Arafat who rejected the idea of a historic Jewish connection to Jerusalem and orchestrated numerous terrorist attacks in his bitter fight against Israel accepted the contemporary reality that Israel -- whether he liked it or not -- was the "Jewish state." And he said so publicly, on at least three occasions.

On Nov. 18, 1988, in the early days of the first Palestinian uprising, Arafat convened the Palestine National Council, the proto-parliament of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), to issue a declaration of independence. That document, a Palestinian hybrid of the American and Israeli declarations of independence, proclaimed the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the United Nations resolution "which partitioned Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state."

This description was not simply a throwaway line, but rather the considered position of the Palestinian leadership at the time. On Dec. 8, 1988, The New York Times reported on a press conference Arafat held with several American peace activists. At the event, Arafat said: "We accept two states, the Palestine state and the Jewish state of Israel."

Sixteen years later, in an interview published on June 17, 2004, Arafat reaffirmed his position. Asked by Israel's liberal daily newspaper Ha'aretz if he understood that "Israel has to keep being a Jewish state," the PLO leader replied, "Definitely." He later said to the interviewer that it was "clear and obvious" that the Palestine refugee problem needs to be resolved in a way that does not change the Jewish character of Israel through an influx of millions of returning Palestinians.

Reasonably enough, Palestinians are asking today why Israel insists on them recognizing its status as the "Jewish state," when past Israeli leaders did not make this demand in peace talks with Egypt or Jordan. The reason is because conflicts with those countries were, by the time of peace talks, essentially territorial disputes, resolved through the equitable drawing of boundaries and the creation of mutually satisfactory security arrangements.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deeper -- it is existential. While many Palestinians suspect that Israel will forever deny them independence, deep in the minds of many Israelis is the idea that Palestinians have a long-term plan to destroy Israel. Formal recognition of Israel as the rightful national home of the Jewish people, which would exist side by side with the rightful national home of the Palestinian people, would go far toward calming such fears. The fact that Abbas still refuses to offer this recognition only deepens those fears.

Perhaps Abbas's refusal is tactical -- an attempt to extract concessions from Israel in exchange for saying the same words Arafat uttered years ago. Or perhaps his refusal is as real and portentous as Arafat's refusal to accept a Jewish connection to Jerusalem.

To his credit, Obama has understood the centrality of the "Jewish state" issue. Despite the pressure he has exerted on Israel to stop building in Jerusalem, release jailed terrorists, or make painful concessions in peace talks, the president has never wavered from his characterization of "the Jewish state of Israel."

That position will be put to the test in Obama's meeting with Abbas on Monday. The president will face a choice: He can recite how even the iconic Arafat recognized Israel as the Jewish state, remind Abbas of the years lost and lives wasted since the last time a Palestinian leader took a harder line than his predecessor, and -- taking a page from his recent public warnings to Israel -- threaten Abbas with a dire future of isolation and irrelevance if he doesn't grab this opportunity for peace. Or alternatively, he could punt -- letting Abbas keep both the accolades of a moderate and the positions of a rejectionist.

For a president confronted elsewhere by metaphors of the past -- Vladimir Putin as Adolf Hitler, the return of the Cold War -- how Obama deals with the "Jewish state" issue in his meeting with Abbas will determine whether, in the Israeli-Palestinian context, history is moving forward or once again moving backward.