Crown Center scholars analyze peace talks, Iraq and Iran at annual fall forum

By Barbara Howard

The success of peace talks currently underway between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas hinges on the attention U.S. President Barak Obama pays to the process, says Professor Shai Feldman, the Judith and Sidney Swartz Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies.

The two Mideast leaders need “adult supervision,” Feldman said. He noted that in the past, U.S. statesmen like Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker have been intimately involved. “The leaders got spoiled and now they expect nothing less than that," says Feldman. The question, he says, is “How much time can Obama spare?”

Feldman made his remarks at the annual fall forum of Crown Center scholars, which was attended by about 80 people.

In addition to the peace talks transpiring today behind closed doors in Washington, topics included the build-up of nuclear arms in Iran and the United State’s official pull out of combat troops in Iraq.

Feldman told the forum that one long-standing principle of the Middle East peace talks has been the notion that “nothing is agreed upon unless everything is agreed upon.” This means that even small issues upon which agreement is reached are put on hold. “The entire process remains hostage to the most difficult and sensitive issues,” Feldman said.

Kanan Makiya, Sylvia K. Hassenfeld Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, noted that Sept. 31 officially marked the end of “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Combat troops have been withdrawn from Iraq, and the U.S. is now operating in an “advise and assist” capacity under “Operation New Dawn,” with fewer than 50,000 U.S. troops still in the country.

Makiya ran the numbers, saying that in the seven years since the war started in 2003, 87,000 Iraqi deaths have been officially reported, while unofficial figures are over 200,000. He said those deaths came overwhelming during the years 2006 and 2007, when 440 U.S. soldiers died. Mikiya says what’s impossible to quantify is “the loss of U.S. standing in the world.”

Many people put Operation Iraqi Freedom, “in the category of the most unmitigated foreign policy disasters,” Makiya said. He said that is an understandable point of view, “given how things have gone and how things turned out.”

“The people of Iraq have different outlooks from the American public,” said Makiya, who contended that while the struggle is not over yet, “it broke the state of stagnation in Arab politics.”

“Kurds are now, for the first time, key political powers,” said Makiya. “That is a good thing.” In the end, Makiya says, “Iraq was the scene of a struggle happening within Islam on a global scale as Muslims struggled with each other and with competing and new notions of what it means to be a Muslim in a contemporary world.”

Naghmeh Sohrabi, assistant director for research at the Crown Center, spoke about Iran.

The 2009 elections there are widely believed to have been a sham, says Sohrabi, yet President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "constantly reminds that he had over 21 million votes. It doesn’t matter [whether] the election was rigged or not, he has constantly been talking about it. In his first speech before the…parliament after the 2009 elections, Ahmadinejad went there and said ‘first of all I’d like to say that I have more votes than all of you parliamentary members put together.’ That’s what he thinks — that he has legitimacy.”

Sohrabi said that a "rift" seems to be opening up between Ahmadinejad and Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who is the country's highest ranking political and religious authority. The division "will have real consequences, not in terms of domestic policy, but in terms of foreign policy,” Sohrabi said, adding, “This, ironically, could be the end of Iran’s theocracy.”

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