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Kleptocracy, Theocracy (and Democracy) in the Middle East

Posted on Dec 8, 2006
Reese Erlich
Courtesy Reese Erlich

Reporter Reese Erlich reports from a mine field near the Afghan-Iranian border in 2004.

By Joshua Scheer

(Page 2)

Truthdig: What is your feeling about how Iran will respond to the [Iraq Study Group report]?

Erlich: I don’t think they will respond favorably. I think the U.S. is up the creek.  They’re not interested in helping the U.S…in Iraq. To elaborate, Iran is in a very strong position right now. The three leading Shi’a groups in Iraq all have very close ties with Iran. For example Moqtada al-Sadr [and] al-Hakim, who is from the SCIRI party—all have strong ties and roots with Iran, much stronger than with the U.S. And as a result the Iranians don’t dictate what happens in Iraq, that’s up to the Iraqis. But they have some political influence. As a result there’s no particular advantage for Iran to meet U.S. demands in terms of what’s going on in Iraq.  The only basis on which they might do it is if the U.S. were to back off on these phony charges about nuclear weapons, [and] the continued economic embargo of Iran. If the U.S. were to move on some of those substantive issues, there might be some room for dialogue. The Baker commission report—it basically proposes that the U.S. keep its same positions, and expect Iran to engage in meaningful discussions. Well, it does not work that way in the world of real politics.

Truthdig: After 9/11, the U.S. was interested in working with Iran; the concerns then were Iran’s support of Hamas and Hezbollah; now we are talking about Syria, too.

Erlich: Let’s get to Syria in a second. There was an example where the U.S. and Iran did cooperate in recent years, and that was to overthrow the Taliban.  I know there is a lot of confusion in the U.S., and it’s encouraged by the Bush administration and some in the media.  But the Taliban, and actually Al Qaeda, were mortal enemies of the Iranians.  The Taliban murdered seven Iranian diplomats at their consulate in Afghanistan in 2000.  That’s just one example of the real enmity and hatred between the Iranians and these fundamentalist Sunnis. Remember the Iranians are fundamentalist Shi’as, Al Qaeda and the Taliban are fundamentalist Sunnis, and there is absolutely no love lost between them.  So Iran was actually happy to cooperate with the U.S. to overthrow the Taliban.  They helped to bring together the various factions, they held behind-the-scenes meetings. The Afghan exiles living in Iran attended the Berlin conference, prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. But from the Iranian standpoint, that cooperation leads nowhere. The Iranians cooperated, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, and then proceeded to call Iran part of the axis of evil.  So if that’s the background in recent years of what happens with negotiations and cooperation, why should the Iranians cooperate? I think that is their attitude.


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As for the Syrians, the U.S. tends to overplay the Syrian hand in Iraq. They’re very much a minor player; they’re not like Iran that has much political influence. I was in Syria in June; I interviewed President Bashar al-Assad.  They’ve had some creative cooperation with the U.S., too. Right after 9/11, they actually turned over intelligence information to the U.S. about terrorists. Some of these infamous renditions, including that Canadian guy of Syrian origin, who was turned over to the Syrians basically for torture, only to find out he was completely innocent of anything…. They do not have much influence in Iraq, and their basic deal is that if they’re going to get anywhere in terms of negotiation, the U.S. has to pressure Israel to give up occupied Syrian territory.  That was something very interesting from the commission report, the Palestinian and Israeli conflict has to be addressed as part of any ultimate settlement in the Middle East. The U.S. tends to look at each of these wars independently. The people of Iraq and the Middle East see them very much interconnected.

Truthdig: It seems that [the Iraq Study Group] wants to go further in terms of deals with Iran and Syria than the Bush administration….

Erlich: Actually, interestingly enough, Bush Sr. was far better on the Palestinian issue than Bush Jr., or the Democrats for that matter. Not that he forced any kind of genuine settlement but, for his own particular reasons, was willing to stand up to the Israelis on some issues.  You can’t resolve any of these issues in the Middle East without Israel giving up the occupied territories, and recognizing a viable Palestinian state. That would lead to a basis of having a mutual recognition. Then Israel for the first time in its history would be able to live in peace with its Arab neighbors. Hopefully all sides could prosper economically, but as long as the U.S. and Israel refuse to return those Arab lands and refuse to recognize a Palestinian state, all this other trouble is going to continue. 

Truthdig: What you are saying is that by giving land and recognizing the Palestinians, it would remove their plight as a recruiting tool for terrorists?

Erlich: The right-wingers and some liberals, for that matter, argue that these terrorists are our sworn enemies no matter what. No matter what concessions you make to them, they will continue to bomb and attack us. Well it’s true, there are some fundamentalist right-wingers in the Arab world and Muslim world who would hate the U.S. and Israel no matter what they did. That’s true. But those folks operate in a political environment, and current U.S. policy and current Israeli policy only help recruit more and more people.  Iraq had no ties with fundamentalist Sunni terrorists prior to the war. Now Iraq does indeed serve as a rallying point for those very same terrorists. The only way to win against them is to undercut them politically by resolving the basic issues. And yeah, so the leaders will still…and nobody will follow them, and they won’t get anybody to blow themselves up.  That’s what’s key. 

Truthdig: In reading up on Syria and other Middle East countries, the leaders it seems to me have some good intentions. So where does it go wrong? Have insiders forced fundamentalism?

Erlich: You mention about Syria, again there is a lot of misinformation, or simply confusion.  By lumping everybody together as a terrorist, people get confused about what the nature of those governments is. Both Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad, the current president of Syria, are secular nationalists; they’re not fundamentalists.  They don’t run religiously based regimes, and as such actually have a lot of differences with the fundamentalists.  In Syria, it’s certainly no democracy, but al-Assad keeps the country together, and is actually fighting the fundamentalist forces who would like to overthrow him, and have an Al Qaeda Taliban government. Syria is considered a pan-Arabist state, they consider themselves socialist, and they are very much different from the people…elsewhere in the world. And to confuse those things does absolutely no good whatsoever, and in fact just ends up ultimately helping the fundamentalist forces.

Truthdig: So Bashar al-Assad is getting it from both sides?

Erlich: Absolutely.

Truthdig: I know these problems go back many years, but in your mind did the invasion of Iraq make it worse?

Erlich: Yeah, it is clearly very complicated, and there are certain long-term issues. [With the] Israeli-Palestine conflict, the territories have been occupied by Israel since 1967. Lebanese politics have certainty been complicated for many years; they went through a very vicious civil war in the  ‘80s. But all of those problems we made much, much worse by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It focused attention and made the U.S. even more unpopular in the Middle East. The intention, the U.S. was going to march into Iraq, install a client regime there, and then move onto Iran and Syria, and the whole Middle East was going to topple.  Not in order to bring democracy, but to install pro-U.S. regimes and call them democratic. Well that dream of the neocons is smashed, probably permanently, and in fact it’s having the absolute opposite effect, and everywhere where the U.S. wants to exert its influence, it’s running into even greater problems. So Lebanon, remember, was just earlier this year—a supposed dream revolution was taking place where the Syrians withdrew and a pro-U.S. government came to power. Well the tactics are now being turned and the people critical to the U.S. are now demonstrating in the streets, trying to bring Hamas and its allies.  So the U.S. is facing setbacks in virtually every country in the region.

Erlich is a freelance print and broadcast journalist who reports regularly for Public radio stations in the U.S., Canada and Australia. He travelled to Iran and Iraq on Assignment for Mother Jones magazine.
His new book “The Iran Agenda: What the U.S. Government Doesn’t Want You to Know” comes out in fall 2007.

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By Robert Griffin, January 4, 2007 at 5:26 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Dear Elizabeth Farnum,

I can’t speak for Reese, but I can add information on the issue.  Other than Turkish (and likely Iranian) opposition to a three state solution, there is another probable genocidal result.

Kurds have been eyeing Assyrian (Chaldo-Assyrian) territory around and north of Mosul for some time. Kurdish repression of non-Kurds both in and near predominantly Kurdish territory has been documented over the past decade, more so since the American occupation. Placing these areas under Kurdish control will allow the Kurdish government to act with impunity against the Assyrians (or Chaldo-Assyrians) and Yezidis in their ancient homelands. On the other hand, placing the area under Sunni control spreads the jeopardy to these non-Muslim minorities from Muslim fanatics.

Be Well,
Bob Griffin

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By Kim Viner, December 30, 2006 at 2:44 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Re: 41704 by felicity:  Your point about Vietnam is acurate to at least some degree but does not, unfortunately apply to Iraq.  The Vietnamese (particularly in the north) resisted Chinese southward expansion for centuries and even fought a war aginst them after we “left” at the end of the Vietnam War. Most Shia in the south of Iraq hold no such historical animosity toward Iran. In fact, they view Iran as a potential bulwark against any repeat of attempted Sunni domination.

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By Socrates, December 27, 2006 at 4:49 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

There are some real problems with media in general, not just in the US, when hearing something fairly obvious becomes surprising and/or refreshing. Good to see this kind of material on Truthdig…keep up the good work!


“As Shakespeare (?) said, ‘There’s nothing new under the sun.’”

That’s from Ecclesiastes, and has been recycled in literature and music hundreds of times.

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By CSavage, December 15, 2006 at 8:04 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Good summary but…...
Turkey, with its large and oppressed Kurdish population, will never stand to have a freestanding Kurdistan sitting right next to it.
It won’t matter how many Starbucks the Kurds have been able to build in the 10 years of the “no-fly-zone”, they have no way of protecting themselves from the military capabilities of Turkey and the US doesn’t have the will or the resources to protect the Kurds from Turkey. No one can seriously look at the quagmire of the Middle East and not figure Turkey into the mix.

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By Tony Wicher, December 15, 2006 at 3:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Erlich: The right-wingers and some liberals, for that matter, argue that these terrorists are our sworn enemies no matter what. No matter what concessions you make to them, they will continue to bomb and attack us. Well it’s true, there are some fundamentalist right-wingers in the Arab world and Muslim world who would hate the U.S. and Israel no matter what they did.”

There is only one concession Israel can make that will bring peace. It is not the return of the occupied territories. The concession that would really work is to give up on the idea of a separate Jewish state in favor of a secular multi-ethnic democracy to govern the whole area. That is the only concession that would satisfy the requirements of justice and universal human rights. Israel as a Jewish separatist state violates these principles. Only inclusion of the Palestinians living together with Israelis as equal citizens will satisfy these requirements.

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By BGood, December 14, 2006 at 3:57 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

First, thank you for clarity and common sense in explaining what, until your comments, had been very fuzzy for me.
The US is a republic, not a democracy.  We endorse capitalism and offer opportunity for all willing to do whatever it takes to win.
Like obscene profits taken by Exxon Mobil and others as a payoff after “the conspired bunch” realized the honeypot in Iraq had morphed into a hornet’s nest with no easy pickins.
Oh, what a creative imagination I have!

I’m new to and am fortunate to be here. Thank you!

Best to all,


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By elizabeth farnum, December 13, 2006 at 9:27 am Link to this comment
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I’m curious to know Reese’s thoughts about the “three state solution”  to Iraq promulgated by Galbraith, etc.

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By jb, December 13, 2006 at 5:54 am Link to this comment
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A realistic if depressing assessment.

Thanks for the info on northern Iraq: ‘The Other Iraq’ on their web sites.

The future direction of Iraq might still be spelled K-i-r-k-u-k, might it not?

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By T.E.Chester, December 13, 2006 at 4:02 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It is a refreshing read.  I’ve read similar articles by those, who, for lack of a better term and not meant as a show of disrepect, are not “main stream.”  By this I mean, Bello, Fox, Clear Channel are sadly considered “main stream.”
  I feel that this administration actually felt that the info they were getting from the Iraqi dissidents was the end all be all truth.  The idea of being greated with “Sweets and flowers” were just too much for them to ignore.
  Maybe they thought it would be like allies liberating Europe during World War II.  And since most of the NeoCons avoided military service during the Vietnam conflict, I guess it would make them feel better about themselves.
  Sadly it has blown up in their faces.  And the American public’s face as well. 
  I can tell you this, I am going to forward this article to my friends and family.

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By Bukko in Australia, December 12, 2006 at 10:53 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Quy: Remember that Talabani, the Iraqi president who denounced the ISG report that wanted U.S. troops slowly pulled out, is Kurdish. The U.S. occupation of its oil colony has worked out very well for the Kurds. Until the U.S. betrays them as it has so many times in the past, cf course…

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By JWW, December 12, 2006 at 9:39 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Now would be the time for progressives to start projecting a true new beginning for Iraq. I know that Bush is in power for the next two years but Americans need hope that a Democratic president would truly bring closure to the Iraq war.

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By felicity, December 11, 2006 at 2:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As Shakespeare (?) said, “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

The same inflated gibberish that China and North Korea…were in North Vietnam for nefarious reasons (establishing a Communist regime) in the guise of “helping” the North in its fight with the South was daily propaganda fare when our government was trying to sell us on why we needed to be in Nam.

The truth was neither North nor South Vietnam wanted ANY foreign entities in their country - France, the US, China, North Korea, Australia, GB…and any who were would be shown the door as soon as the US left.

It’s a safe bet that the Iraqis don’t welcome Iran, Syria, Al Quaeda…in their country and as soon as the Americans leave other foreign entities will be shown the door.

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By Quy Tran, December 11, 2006 at 11:47 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The president of Iraq on Sunday sharply criticized the U.S. team report on Iraq as “an insult to the people of Iraq”. He also said U.S. training of Iraq’s army and police had gone “from failure to failure”.

“Generally, I reject this report”, he concluded.

Dear Mr. President, you rejected this report a little bit late because we denied it before it was sent to our King. We have known this report was a sordic trick played by dirtiest politicians. But we’re still praised your courage to speak loudly. You’re not the same caliber of Nguyen Van Thieu of Saigon Government who only known to bow and knee down in front of his U.S. honchos begging for more favors. You can look up with proud. Just keep being hero exactly like Mr. Matak, the president of Cambodia who refused to be flee out of his country and had been killed by his ennemies.

Never trust the so-called “ALLIES” because there’re absolutely no ALLIES between the master and his servants.

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By B ukko in Australia, December 11, 2006 at 4:06 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

For once, I agree with Spinoza (you bomb-thrower, you!) Good reportage. I read all the time about Middle Eastern news, but I was unaware of the duopolistic political undercurrents in Kurdistan, and how the Iranians supported overthrowing the Taliban. Shows what happens when you cooperate with Bush—you still get the shank in the back. Articles like this give credence to the “truth dig” name.

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By felicity, December 10, 2006 at 4:46 pm Link to this comment
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Is it possible that the US State Department, Pentagon, Department of Defense, Oval Office, the hundreds of “think tanks” - we’re talking about a lot of people drawing a lot of big salaries courtesy of us in most cases - failed so abysmally to read the landscape in Iraq?  Odds are not.  Most of us don’t succumb easily to clandestine plots occurring behind closed doors, yet the situation in Iraq is looking more and more like a deal that occurred behind closed doors and will ultimately work out to benefit the world’s oil barons as planned.

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By Geronimo, December 9, 2006 at 1:33 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It’s been this way ever since our president got us into this mess and the only thing that’s certain now is that every day it gets worse.  Meaning it’s not so much lack of information that prevents us from stopping the Iraq war, it’s that we haven’t made the transition yet from merely opposing it to actually ending it.  What’s holding us back?  Not having begun, that’s what, because we can’t miss, once we start.  ..

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By Spinoza, December 8, 2006 at 11:42 pm Link to this comment
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Rather good straight foward reporting and analysis. What we need in the rest of the press.

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