Editor’s note: Investigative reporter Reese Erlich, just back from a tour of the Middle East, tells Truthdig research editor Josuha Scheer that the U.S. efforts to promote democracy in that part of the world are beset by religious fundamentalists on one side and unabashed kleptocrats on the other. Truthdig:

How long were you in the Middle East?

Erlich: A total of two and a half weeks.

Truthdig: Is it as dangerous as people are talking about?

Erlich: Yeah, in Iraq it is. Sure.

Truthdig: But in Iran, is it all bad?

Erlich: No, certainly in Tehran it is safe. It’s safer than some U.S. cities. Unless you are a political dissident, in which case it is very dangerous. But for ordinary citizens, travelers, and for me as a foreign journalist — I wasn’t worried about bombs going off, or getting machine-gunned or something like that. They’re increasingly restrictive of how foreign journalists can operate.

Truthdig: Did you go through a press office?

Erlich: The U.S. government is fine with travel to Iran; there are no restrictions, like [with] Cuba for example. But it is very hard to get an Iranian visa. They don’t let you leave Tehran without official permission, and they try to closely monitor who you interview….

Truthdig: You were there for two and a half weeks; so you were able to work?

Erlich: Oh yeah. I’ve never let government restrictions stand in my way.

Truthdig: We hear about violence between Sunnis and Shiites all the time, and the civil war. I was just wondering, is there a place in Iraq that’s stable?

Erlich: Yeah, the northern part, the Kurdish area.

Truthdig: How do they get that kind of stability?

Erlich: You have to understand a bit of the history. From the end of the Gulf War in ’91 till the U.S. invasion of 2003, the U.S. enforced this no-fly zone in the Kurdish area, and the Kurds were basically free to develop their own country. So when the U.S. invaded in 2003 the Kurds had an advanced start of roughly 10 years in which they had their own economy…and they are a distinct ethnic group separate from Iraqi Arabs. So the violence that inhabits the rest of Iraq is largely absent from the Kurdish-controlled areas, and they do everything they can to keep the Iraqi Arabs out. There are checkpoints all over the place. Even though theoretically they are part of Iraq, if you are Iraqi Arab you have to register with the police and tell them what you are doing there, and generally it’s as inhospitable as possible.

Truthdig: Is it [like] the Iran of the north, where it is harder to get around but there is less violence?

Erlich: It’s not quite accurate to talk about it as Iran of the north. The good news is that you can drive around. I drove around at night between two cities, which would be impossible in the rest of Iraq. People walk freely on the streets. There is an economic building boom in Suleimaniyeh, where I was, for example — all kinds of buildings going up, public works things going on, etc. And that’s all impossible in the rest of Iraq. People go to work, people go to school, people are in university, and that’s no small accomplishment, given the tremendous violence, both the resistance to the U.S. and a civil war between the various ethnic groups….

But it’s tricky, because Kurdistan has become basically a little U.S. client state, and that’s where the U.S. is going to fall back to when the rest of Iraq collapses. There’re elections and all that, but it’s a kleptocracy. The parties that run the legislature — there’s two Kurdish parties — officially grant themselves money out of the state treasury. It just goes straight into the coffers of the political parties, you don’t need a Jack Abramoff, or anything like that … you just take the money. It’s like if Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay just took several billion dollars and put it directly into the Republican Party, and built themselves houses and bought themselves cars. That’s what they’re doing in Kurdistan. So long-term it’s a serious problem; it’s a story that’s been completely underreported, because of all the violence in the rest of Iraq.

Truthdig: Are the Kurds an example for the rest of Iraq, [in terms of] violence?

Erlich: Well’s its unique, it is an area that’s one ethnicity and one religion. And they do everything they can to keep other people out. It’s not a model because once the rest of Iraq falls apart, the Kurds are going to start invading other parts like Kirkuk, where the oil is. When that happens, the Kurds are going to try to seize control of areas, and drive out anybody who’s not Kurdish, and the other sides are going to drive out the Kurds. So you are going to see the same kind of civil war that’s going on in the rest of Iraq. [It] will break out in the northern part as well, where there’re contested areas.

Truthdig: So the Kurds will be a part of more and more violence?

Erlich: Yes, exactly. There will be ethnic cleansing on all sides, when the Kurds decide to declare their own independent country.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.

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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