Philadelphia’s Message to the World

This blog is based on a talk to 3,000 high school students at the Ivy League Model UN Conference in Philadelphia, January 28, 2016.

Late last year, Philadelphia became the first US city to be granted World Heritage City status by UNESCO.  This is an opportunity for Philadelphians to pause and reflect on precisely what it is that constitutes Philadelphia’s contribution to world history, and what, if anything, Philadelphia can teach the world today.  


Of course, we associate our nation’s founding documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States – with Philadelphia, where they were drafted. But, still, what precise lessons emerge from these documents, and how well are we communicating those lessons to the world – or even to our own children?

I have heard it said that Philadelphia is the birthplace of modern democracy. But, as the economist Steven Hanke has pointed out, the word democracy appears nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.  And the bell we revere in Independence Square is not called the Democracy Bell.

If the truth be told, the Founding Fathers were skeptical of democracy, even fearful of it, for they associated it with the tyranny of the majority.  They therefore constructed a constitution designed, as UPenn historian Walter McDougall notes, “to thwart democracy.” They separated powers among the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government, divided powers between federal and state governments, provided for each branch of government to check the others while limiting the powers of all. These are the means by which the founders sought to limit what majority rule could do.

Ultimately, Hanke explains, they gave us not democracy, but liberty.

The difference is important for the world at large, especially as we try to foster transitions to “democracy.”  That a country holds an election may make it democratic but it does not make it free if there are no protections for individual liberty and no structures in place to protect that liberty from a tyrant in the form of a person or in the form of “the people.”    

In a conference we sponsored on “The Creation of a Liberal Society: Did It Happen in Philadelphia by Accident?,” the historian Alan Tully reminded us of the signal contribution of William Penn, whose statue stands atop City Hall in Philadelphia. In 1681, he was given a charter for a province that became the commonwealth that took his name – Pennsylvania. As a Quaker, a sect once persecuted in England for their religious beliefs and practices, Penn promulgated for that province — but ultimately for the country as a whole — freedom of conscience, freedom to follow the religion of your choice. After a century of havoc wrought in Europe by the Wars of Religion, Penn’s concept of freedom of conscience was a novel idea. We take it for granted but experiences in other parts of the world – and even sometimes here at home — suggest that it is not something that can ever be taken for granted. 

Freedom of religion is our first freedom, not only philosophically but literally as well. The first of ten amendments to the Constitution that make up the Bill of Rights, whose passage was promised in order to secure ratification of the Constitution in the first place, reads:  “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Thus, freedom of religion is the very first right guaranteed in the very first amendment.  It is the cornerstone of liberty.  

Does this speak to the modern world?  It most certainly does, as many pundits have already opined that the wars of religion in the Middle East today seem so reminiscent of the Wars of Religion of yesteryear. The maltreatment of religious minorities in the Middle East, sometimes bordering on genocide, is in desperate need of correction. It is noteworthy that on January 27 a meeting of 250 Muslim religious leaders in Marrakesh, Morocco issued the Marrakesh Declaration affirming that Islam prohibits the mistreatment of religious minorities in Muslim majority states.  From William Penn to Marrakesh, you can draw a straight line. 

What can Philadelphia teach the world? That liberty is a higher value than democracy, and that freedom of conscience is the basis of all liberty. 

Historians have noted that the history of the world through time and space is a history largely of war, oppression, and poverty, save for the last few hundred years when we have carved out a space for peace and peaceful resolution of conflict, for liberty, and for prosperity.  And at least some debt for this is owed to what happened in Philadelphia in the 1700s.  It remained for the generations that followed and for us today first to understand this legacy – and then to build on it to spread the blessings of liberty.

Alan Luxenberg is president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

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Azerbaijan Closes Its Doors: This Time To Amnesty International

FPRI scholars and contributors have frequently used the case of Azerbaijan to support the argument that in today’s world too frequently geopolitics trumps democratization. The oil-rich geostrategically important Azerbaiajan has been somewhat of a “sweetheart” of the West for many years. This has been the case despite its ruling Aliyev regime’s worsening track record of human rights abuses, along with a recent trend of overall consolidation of the autocratic regime. FPRI’s Melinda Haring has pointed out the apparent hypocrisy of US democracy promotion programs in Azerbiajan, where US taxpayer money reportedly has been spent on empowering an illegitimately elected parliament. A recent article by Gerald Knaus outed the European Council for supporting the Aliyev regime, concluding that “the autocratic regime of President Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan has managed to steal the soul of Europe’s most important human rights institution, the Council of Europe.”

While to the Western governments Azerbaijan seems to be an important strategic partner, the rest of the international community has become quite vocal about the torture and imprisonment of the innocent Azerbaijanis. Freedom House, in its Nations in Transit reportconcluded that in 2015 “Ilham Alyev’s regime brought a new intensity to its multiyear crackdown on activists and journalists” many of whom were jailed “on fabricated charges like hooliganism or possession of weapons and drugs.”

This international scrutiny has only added fuel to the fire. For instance, crackdowns on freedom of speech continue to worsen. Most local critics are still locked up and silenced, while representatives of international organizations are forced to leave the country. The Aliyev regime has already banned the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and National Democratic Institute (NDI) to name just a few. The Council of Europe scandal ended with the its announcement that it was pulling its human rights working group out of Azerbaijan.

Just this past summer FPRI’s Christine Philippe-Blumauer wrote about democratic backsliding in Azerbaijan and the grim outlook for the future of freedom and democracy there. Now the story continues as the Aliyev government gears up for the upcoming parliamentary elections; the observers are reminded that international scrutiny will not be tolerated. This week Amnesty International joined the group of international organizations no longer welcome in Azerbaijan. On October 7th the international human rights watchdog announced that its representatives had been deported from Azerbaijan.  

According to Amnesty International “there are at least 20 prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan, locked up for criticizing or challenging the authorities…. Many other activists and campaigners have fled the country, while those who remain are often too fearful, because of threats to themselves or their families, to speak out against human rights violations committed by the authorities. Independent media is now almost non-existent, while newspapers and television stations owned or controlled by the government are used to smear critics. This allows abuses by the authorities to go unchecked.”

The two AI representatives, both Georgian nationals, had been engaged in first-hand research, campaigning and high-level advocacy to achieve the release of those lawyers, activists and journalists who have been wrongfully imprisoned in Azerbaijan. One of the deported AI employees, Levan Asatiani, spoke to FPRI on October 8th, explaining that while AI does not have permanent representatives inside Azerbiajan, its Europe and Central Asia Program at the International Secretariat in London covers the work on that country. According to Mr. Asatiani AI’s work on Azerbaijan primarily focuses on freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. Mr. Asatiani has worked for AI as a Campaigner in the Europe and Central Asia Program for almost two years. In addition to Azerbaijan he covers Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia.

In his conversation with FPRI Mr. Asatiani described the incident:

“My colleague and I were planning to meet with civil society representatives, including activists, journalists and opposition leaders in Azerbaijan to receive up-to-date information on the human rights situation in the country. Amnesty International had informed the authorities about our visit but never received a reply.

As we approached the passport control at the Baku Heydar Aliyev International Airport, the immigration officers took away our passports and told us that we were prohibited from entering the country. We were deported the same day, after spending several hours at the Airport. The immigration officers did not provide any explanation for our deportation.”  

According to Mr. Asatiani “this is yet another [piece of] evidence that Azerbaijan is closing down to any type of international scrutiny.”

Mr. Asatiani describes the human rights situation in Azerbaijan as dire:

“[it] has reached its lowest point in Azerbaijan. Over the last two years the authorities have imprisoned dozens of journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders, including at least 20 prisoners of conscience–individuals incarcerated solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Those who remain outside the bars are constantly intimidated, harassed and threatened. As of today, Azerbaijan is pretty much left without any independent voices.”

To the question of what is to be expected from Azerbaiajan’s November parliamentary elections, Mr. Asatiani replied with pessimism:

“Azerbaijani political parties operate in the climate of fear and intimidation where freedoms of expression, association and assembly are constantly muted.

On top of that, the November elections will take place without any comprehensive national or international monitors. The head of the major national election monitoring NGO–the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center–Anar Mammadli has been imprisoned since 16 December 2013 on trumped-up charges and the major international election-monitoring mission from the OSCE/ODIHR had to be cancelled due to the restrictions imposed by the Azerbaijani authorities.

The upcoming parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan could hardly be free and fair when the human rights repression continues unabated; the country is left without any independent voices or national and international monitors.”

While Azerbaijan appears to gradually close its doors to well-wishing outsiders, whether it is non-profit, democracy, or human rights focused organizations, it still gladly welcomes those who are interested in doing business there. The World Bank’s “ease of doing business” index for Azerbaijan improved by 8 points in 2015. Foreign Direct Investments make up a large portion of Azerbaijan’s wealth.  In 2014, FDI flows reached US$8 billion. Over 83 percent of these investments were intended for the oil and gas sector. In hopes of attracting positive international attention Azerbaijan hosted the European Games this past summer and did not disappoint. Baku has been developed into what looks like a mini Dubai, with beautifully and creatively designed buildings like the new Aliyev Center, posh shopping districts, and a world class airport. Thus it comes as no surprise that Azerbaijan places a high value on its international image, forcing President Aliyev to take truly extraordinary measures to keep it from tarnishing. As FPRI’s Arzu Geybullayeva recently reported, President Aliyev even sued a French TV channel for calling him a despot.  

According to Mr. Asatiani the Western democracies have a lot of leverage over Azerbaijan, and it is time they use it to put an end to the rampant human rights abuses there.

“Last month, when the European Parliament adopted the resolution condemning Azerbaijan’s human rights record and called for the release of the detained human rights defenders, Baku reacted with hysteria. This is a clear example that Azerbaijan’s government is highly sensitive when it comes to its international image. Therefore, instead of the usual silent diplomacy, the Western democracies must be more outspoken and should publicly call on the Azerbaijani authorities [and take advantage of] every available opportunity to stop the human rights crackdown. The western leaders must also use their political and diplomatic leverage to encourage Azerbaijan to respect basic freedoms and rights. After all, it is within the long-term interests of Azerbaijan and its government to have a strong and independent civil society, which can play its positive role in the development of the country.”

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Freedom House Reports Alarming Authoritarian Pushback in Eurasia’s Nations in Transit

On June 23rd Freedom House—an independent democracy and human rights watchdog organization—released its annual Nations in Transit report. Nations in Transit (NIT) studies the state of democratization in 29 countries from Central and Eastern Europe to Central Asia. The NIT is also one of the few highly respectable and reliable quantitative measures of democracy, which for 20 years now has served as an important point of reference for scholars and organizations all over the world. FPRI’s own Project on Democratic Transitions relies heavily upon Freedom House’s NIT measurements for its research and publications.

Freedom House’s findings shed further bad news about the state of democracy in Eurasia this year. The title of the 2015 report warns that “Democracy is on the Defensive in Europe and Eurasia.” As the report’s project director Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczowska states in its executive summary:

When the first edition of NIT was published 20 years ago, only three countries—Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—were considered “consolidated authoritarian regimes.” Since 2000, however, the number of such regimes has more than doubled, and Eurasia’s average democracy score has fallen from 5.4 to 6.03 on a 7-point scale.

Looking back at the post-communist world 20 years ago, it is impossible to believe that the region is more authoritarian now than it was during the era of failed states, rampant corruption, and civil wars. But while the region is better off today than it was in the 1990s, it is no secret that 20 years ago the democracy-promotion community exercised an excessive amount of wishful thinking when it dealt with the countries of post-communist Eurasia. This wishful thinking often refused to acknowledge that there was no actual “democratization” happening in some of those states, labeling them as “slow democratizers,” “would be democracies,” or “nascent democracies.” In the early 2000s, when these “slow democratizers” never democratized, the democracy-promotion community had to finally come to terms with the reality and adjust its “labeling system.” This is why Georgia, for example, practically a failed state throughout the 1990s, continued to receive the same NIT democracy scores throughout the 2000s as it did in the late 1990s, although it had become a rapid and successful reformer.

That said, even with today’s sober approach to understanding democratic transitions, the recent regression in post-communist Europe and Eurasia is obvious to people who closely examine the region. As Ms. Habdank-Kolaczowska says, “Over the last 10 years in particular, authoritarian leaders who paid lip service to democratic reform have systematized their repressive tactics and largely abandoned any pretense of inclusive politics.”

Alarming Key Findings

The key findings for this year’s NIT are alarming to say the least:

  • Russia has earned its largest ratings decline in a decade, “as the Kremlin stepped up suppression of dissent at home while seeking to destabilize the new government in Ukraine.”
  • Hungary completely fell out of the category of “consolidated democracies.” It is now considered a semi-consolidated democracy—joining EU newcomers (relative to Hungary)—Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia, to name a few, who have long belonged in this category.
  • Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus continue to be in dire conditions under consolidated authoritarian rule. Azerbaijan in particular has experienced serious backsliding as the Aliyev regime has become unapologetic about punishing dissent and resorting to severe human rights abuses to avoid opposition.
  • We have also seen the fear of Russian propaganda translate into government actions limiting the voice of free media in the Baltics—previously frontrunners in securing media freedom. “Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania struggled to come up with adequate responses to Russia’s propaganda onslaught,” resorting to unorthodox approaches to solving the problem, like banning some of the Russian propaganda TV channels.

Hard Questions, Impossible Answers 

To honor of the release of the NIT 2015, Freedom House held a panel discussion on June 23rd. The panel, moderated by NPR’s David Greene, included Will Englund (Washington Post), Tim Judah (The Economist), and Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczowska (Freedom House). Some of the major themes of the discussion included the rise of Russia as a major aggressor in the region, the strength and impact of its propaganda machine, and the decline in democracy’s popularity as people are increasingly more willing to choose stable authoritarianism over “freedom” in anarchy (as we have seen in many of the Arab uprising countries).

The conditions for democratic consolidation are less than favorable in today’s Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Approximately 80 percent of Eurasia lives under some form of authoritarian rule. Russia has quickly moved away from its role as an important ally to the West and is now a dangerous aggressor. Hungary is no longer a consolidated democracy. Previously pioneers of democracy, the Visegrad Four countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary) are now facing major internal struggles. Euroskepticism within the EU is combined with uncertainty over economic conditions and serves to weaken the EU’s image abroad. Its decision-making mechanisms are complex and inefficient, preventing it from taking a strong stand against authoritarian pushback. To the question of what the EU can do to avoid further regression in Hungary, Ms. Habdank-Kolaczowska said that the EU’s options are limited as it does not have too many tools in-between doing nothing and resorting to expulsion. Ms. Habdank-Kolaczowska added that watching Hungary regress so quickly after so much initial democratic progress is “demoralizing”. While it had been slowly regressing for the past seven years, even five years ago no one questioned Hungary’s democratic aspirations. Today it is no longer a consolidated democracy. Moreover, its regression is showing diffusion effects on Slovakia where we may soon see the same type of regression.

The panelists added that just as alarming is the rapid regression in Azerbaijan. The regime has become more and more intolerant of criticism and impervious to international pressures. Azerbaijan enjoys the privileges of being an ally to Europe and the US. Whether it is politicians going on very expensive holidays to Baku or Lady Gaga performing at the Olympic games, the West’s actions towards Azerbaijan have only served to further legitimize the corrupt Alyev regime. For economic and strategic reasons the West is not doing much about its regression, and this is in turn leading to a dramatically negative shift in Azerbaijan. The situation is reminiscent of Kazakhstan, but the Aliyev regime in Azerbiajan has enjoyed a lot more “success” in openly practicing authoritarianism while also enjoying the West’s support.

Mr. Englund, a long-time Russia reporter, expressed concerns over Putin’s success at giving human rights a bad name. For many Russians it is a concept mostly viewed as a decadent western ideal that has nothing to do with them. The discussants also expressed their concerns over the decreasing popularity of democratic values and the growing support for authoritarianism as a means to stability. Since the dramatic failures of the Arab uprisings, the Eurasia region has seen a rise in the “fetishization” of stability, which is now a lynchpin to most authoritarian regimes. The pragmatic voters are choosing the “known evil” over the unknown one in fear of ending up in a Syria-like scenario, believing that “the alternative is worse.” In this vein, the discussants stressed the need for combating this narrative by ensuring that Ukraine’s transition becomes a successful one. If the West is to support Ukraine’s democratization, its economic stability and territorial integrity, the results will speak for themselves; this will be an outcome more powerful than anything RT (formally known as “Russia Today”) may be propagating.

While there was consensus on the importance of the West supporting Ukraine and ensuring its success and stability, many of Mr. Greene’s hard questions were often met with brief, inconclusive responses, not due to the discussants’ incompetence, but due to the daunting nature of the questions. Is it ok to restrict media freedoms in order to control Russian media propaganda (i.e., the recent case of the Baltics)? How do we respond to the rise of authoritarianism that is flourishing at the expense of democracy’s popularity? What do we do about the rampant human rights abuses throughout our strategic partner states in Central Asia? How do we deal with the weakened EU? Are we to simply come to terms with the fact that some countries, like Ukraine, will always be “stuck in the middle,” serving as “buffer zones” between Russia and the EU? If we cannot fight to promote democratic values in a country, and if we are to accept that some countries are always going to be caught in the middle, what are we doing talking about them? These were some of Mr. Greene’s panic-inducing questions that left the audience pondering long after the event was over.

Perhaps in a way, the ambiguities of this discussion reflect the current state of mind in Washington; democracy is in serious trouble: not only are the Western liberal values losing global support, but even basic human rights and freedoms are being violated on a regular basis. We are in the midst of a dangerous authoritarian pushback in Europe and Eurasia, and the new and fragile democracies that the West invested in so heavily are now at risk. We have plenty of tools to carefully study and understand these problems, take Freedom House’s excellent NIT report as one example, but we are unsure as to what exactly our role and responsibility may be in resolving these problems going forward.


Author’s Note

The good news is that if these are the questions on the minds of FPRI’s readers, one needs to go no further than its Project on Democratic Transitions. For the past 10 years we have dedicated our time and efforts to analyzing what the West can do to help spread democracy, what it has done in the past, how successful its efforts have been, what lessons can be learned from our previous successes and failures in assisting democracy abroad, and when, where, and how it can be done better in the future. These are some of the questions that our October 2014 conference dealt with at length, and our forthcoming (Winter 2016) book entitled “Does Democracy Matter?” will explore in greater detail.

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Iran Before and After 1979: How Did We Get Here from There?

Thirty-six years ago on February 11, 1979, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s monarchy came to an end and with it the commencement of an era of disorder throughout the Middle East. Just previously characterized by President Jimmy Carter as an “island of stability,” the political Shi’a clerics’ rapid confiscation of the state apparatus under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini dramatically shifted Iran’s foreign policy by  frequently supplanting national interests with sectarian ones. Khomeinism blended Third Worldism (anti-US), pan-Islamism (political Islam), and Shi’a-tinged liberation theology while also occasionally appealing to Persian historical greatness. That radical shift persists to this day. The consequences of this deviation from a more rational, national interest based, approach to policy formulation reverberate throughout the region today, particularly in the Levant and Mesopotamia. This reversal upended what had been a mutually beneficial de facto strategic alliance between Iran, Israel and the US that helped to maintain a balance of power in the region. Today’s relations among the three states could not be more different from the pre-1979 era as there is very little hope for democracy and secularism in today’s Iran.

How Did We Get Here?
In the wake of the events marking that wintery day of 1979, the trilateral Iran-Israel-USA alliance gave way to counter-natural realignments with unforeseeable consequences. Indeed, a cascade of incremental regional disintegration was to follow. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan rent asunder the generally amiable relations between the countries since the signing of a friendship treaty in 1921. To the south, the House of Saud-led Arab Sunni sheikhdoms engaged in an ongoing battle against the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose supreme leader overtly challenged the former’s religious legitimacy.[1] From this struggle for the leadership mantle of Islam, a particular brand of Islamic extremism developed and became militarized, thus giving rise to the forces of al-Qaeda and ISIS decades later. On Iran’s west, Saddam Hussein assumed Iraq’s presidency in a brutal bloodbath, turning his military on what he perceived as a vulnerable Persia in the following year. Lacking allies in an increasingly unstable and threatening Middle East, post-revolutionary Iran took its friends where it could find them, targeting Shi’ite co-religionists in Damascus and southern Lebanon in need of oil and financing. And as Hezbollah (and eventually even Sunni Hamas) opened up smoldering fronts on Israel’s borders, that country’s political leadership gradually shifted from kibbutz-minded labor Zionism towards one increasingly religious.

While these events and the regional realignments they produced are varied in their underlying causes, they are in many ways direct consequences of Iran’s revolution.  Taking into account the exceptional degree of regional instability borne of policies beholden to the ideological precepts of the Vilayat-e Faqih, it remains highly unlikely that a greater peace will come to the Middle East while the present regime’s concept of the Islamic Republic of Iran persists. This is not to say that Iran’s current leadership behaves irrationally: if rational is the systematic pursuit of a set objective, then that leadership has consistently been rational from the onset in 1979. However, its calculus is based first and foremost in the survival of the revolutionary regime with a focus on sectarian concerns, and the relegation of genuine national interests to a distant second. For evidence, one needs to look no further than the milestones of this leadership’s record of the last 36 years.

By way of example, Iran’s national interests had nothing to do with the savage dismantling of the country’s military chain of command, as it immediately followed the `79 Revolution, with Saddam’s armies offensive as its direct consequence. Similarly, Iran’s national interests had nothing to do with the post-`79 destruction of the nation’s civil society, coupled with the executions and exile of its entrepreneurs and academics, which further placed Iran on a downward trajectory that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps only accelerated for the sake of its religious ideology with corollary financial benefits. On current display is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s intransigence over the nuclear issue, despite those debilitating sanctions presently levied against his country: since the so-called “revolution of the disinherited” and over the past 30 years, the number of people living in shanty towns in Iran has been multiplied by seventeen.[2]

The regime’s combined efforts to control any and all spaces for dissent culminate in a turn from a pluralistic reading of the country’s history to one that is strictly dogmatic in its Shia mania: a realistic reading of this country’s millennia-long journey shows that reducing Iran’s history, culture and identity to Islam, reducing Islam to Shiism and Shiism to Khomeinism is an academic nonsense. As a result, there is little hope of a reliable relationship with a “partner” committed to a culture of sectarianism despite today’s common concerns, be they geopolitical, geoeconomic, or environmental.

Consider this state of affairs with the regional policies of pre-revolutionary Iran. With Reza Shah’s drive to modernize and reform in the 1920s, Persia simultaneously embarked on a policy of good relations with its neighbors in order to better concentrate efforts on its internal development. This conciliatory, non-interventionist approach was consistently reaffirmed from the 1937 Sa’dabad Pact through the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO; 1955) to the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD; 1964), the latter comprising Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan. Significantly, Mohammad Reza Shah’s Iran further maintained its regional balance through its reliance on US and Israeli military and economic aid, designed to contain Soviet ambitions from the north and increasingly radical governments in Arab states, such as Egypt and Iraq. Combined, these alignments coincided with an unprecedented period of stability throughout the Northern Tier states, with resultant socio-economic benefits for Iran, prospering under the protective umbrella of the country’s well-equipped and trained armed forces.

Once a Successful Alliance

The former functionality of the Iran-Israel-US alliance was noteworthy in its pragmatic aspects: 

  • US and Iranian concerns of Soviet expansion into the Middle East, with Iran securely straddling a region bridging the Asia Minor to the Indian Ocean.
  • The multitude of US business interests entrenched in Iran, especially in its petroleum and arms industries.
  • Iran’s pivotal position in Israel’s “alliance of the periphery”, firmly coupled with US protective concerns for both countries.
  • The non-Arab cultural, linguistic, and historic Judeo and Persian national identities distinct in an otherwise predominantly Sunni-Arab region.
  • Common energy interests as Iran became the near-exclusive oil provider of Israel, as well as those in commerce, the military, and intelligence.

In an ideal future world, one might imagine Iran and Israel moving towards a new balance in their regional relationships given these common geographic, demographic, and economic interests, as well as certain civilizational considerations, that had brought them together in the past.

For the forseeable future, however, the Periphery Doctrine is no more and will never be the same as it once was. The reasons are several. The greatest, of course, was the paradigm shift of 1979 and the resulting challenge Khomeini made to the rival Riyadh, one that could not advance without taking the Arab side in the Palestinian Question, thus fundamentally putting it at odds with Israel. In stark contrast to decades of a cooperative relationship in military and economic spheres, Turkish-Israeli relations under Recip Tayyip Erdogan have sunk to new lows and will unlikely rebound without either a change of government in Ankara or a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Iran’s younger generations have shown a greater degree of concern and sympathy for Israel’s Arab citizens. Israel’s relations with Ethiopia during the era of the periphery alliance fluctuated, and although now improved, it may shift again. Finally, taking into account the post-Cold War Central Asia and the Caucasus (as well as what may be history’s first independent Kurdish state), a new group of states or nations that may constitute reliable peripheral allies have has expanded (e.g. Israeli-Azerbaijani security and trade relations).[3]


This is not to advocate for the resumption of Iran’s pre-Revolutionary status quo ante under an authoritarian ruler, who was quite far from being a liberal democrat. Indeed, his regime and the current are untenable due to the extraordinary amount of authority resting in the hands of a single individual, be it the Shah or the Supreme Leader. If a system of governance is to be defined as the tangible and intangible relations of interdependent, rational elements whose raison d’être is the sustainability of the whole, the durability of a structure based predominantly in the power of one is limited. The lesson here is that whether the Pahlavism[4] of yesteryear or the current U.S. administration’s tacit acceptance of Iranian hegemony in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, placing long-term bets on oppressive Iranian regimes has borne and will continue to bear out poorly.

As noted, Khomeini’s victory in the wake of Iran’s revolution presaged an unforeseen era of strife reverberating throughout the Middle East over three decades later. Recognizing their limits, some counterfactuals are worth considering: Would the Red Army have invaded Iran’s neighboring Afghanistan had the strong military and intelligence Iran-Israel-US ties persisted? Would Saddam’s Baathist Iraq have dared to attack Iran, had the command structure of the Iranian armed forces not been devastated by Khomeini and his “religious intellectuals”? Would Saddam Hussein have sent his armies to Kuwait, had Iran remained strong and influential? Could a non-revolutionary Iran have played a potentially constructive role as a bridge between Jews and Arabs?

The tragic reverberations from the ‘79 Revolution actually represent an anomaly, a disruption of aligned interests. Before 1979 the convergence of interests between these states went deeper than Cold War politics. At one point in history, by reason of geopolitics, economy, security, culture, and energy, Iranian and Israeli concerns were in line and enjoyed attendant US engagement. Is it possible for such an arrangement to be realized once again? Not in the near future, but if it is to become an eventual possibility it could only be done through the establishment of a democratic and secular government in Tehran.  In the weeks and months ahead, many variables could radically change the entire Iranian equation: from the radicalizing internal antagonisms in the run up to the next Majlis elections in June 2016, to the medical condition of the Supreme Leader and the foreseeable major crisis that his succession would inevitably unleash. Free and fair elections represent the most viable political strategy over this period and beyond: The Islamic Republic is a signatory of the Paris 1994 inter-parliamentary declaration that defines the criteria for such elections. Wouldn’t a freely elected law-making assembly in Tehran be the West’s best Iranian partner in trust-building measures so badly needed to solve the nuclear and regional crises?


[1] Fuller, Graham. The Center of the Universe – The Geopolitics of Iran. Westview Press, 1991, p. 105.

[2] Radio Farda, March 13, 2015,

[3] Shaffer, Brenda, “Azerbaijan’s Cooperation with Israel Goes Beyond Iran Tensions,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, April 16, 2013,

[4] Bill, James. The Eagle and the Lion – The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations. Yale Press, 1988, pp. 374-378. 

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In China: “A Peaceful Democratic Transition?”


Nothing appears by accident in the Global Times, Beijing’s mass-circulation tabloid owned by the People’s Daily and run by the Communist Party. So I was astonished to read there, in an editorial feature this past March 9, the following sentence:  “The West has never thought that China will have a ‘peaceful democratic transition,” [西方從未想過中國將有’和平的民主過度]. Even a year ago such words would have been grounds for firing or worse. Yet there they were; they had passed through layers of editors and censors, and their meaning was unmistakable.

How to explain them? I think this sentence is one of the now regular but inconspicuous clues scattered in the media as to where China’s new and energetic President Xi Jinping 習近平 (1953-) seeks to take his country.

The article appeared in response to a piece by an American China specialist long known for his highly favorable views of Chinese communism but now suddenly turned pessimistic, foreseeing chaos ahead [David Shambaugh, “The Coming Chinese Crackup, Wall Street Journal, March 6]. The essay seems deeply to have insulted the Chinese authorities.

Why? As the Chinese author sees it, by insisting that the his people cannot rule themselves, but instead require the strong hand of dictatorship, with chaos as the only alternative, the regime’s most reliable American apologists are in fact suggesting that somehow, by nature or culture, the Chinese are simply unfit for or incapable of the sort of peaceful change that in 1994, for instance, saw Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) elected president in previously apartheid South Africa.

“No,” the newspaper is saying: “Americans, please realize that Chinese are not natural slaves and that we can and will change if necessary as many other countries have done.”

An unprecedentedly fierce attack on corruption even at the highest levels has so far been the hallmark of President Xi’s administration: He has put one corrupt official after another behind bars—“tigers” they are called in Chinese, laohu 老虎.  An example is Zhou Yongkang 周永康 (1942-), who among other things, is the controller of the whole national secret police and security apparatus. All have been so long in office as to have seemed permanent fixtures of the regime, having limitless power—and also fortunes, some in the billions of US dollars—at least partly secreted outside China.

Attacking such “tigers” head-on as Xi is doing is an enormous risk. He understands better than anyone that if they should somehow band together, they can easily topple him. Rumor has it that Xi has already survived six assassination attempts.

Nothing, however, unifies these “tigers” except individual greed. They have no ideology; if anything they are rivals. Furthermore, ordinary Chinese people are thrilled to see notorious criminal officials brought down. This writer’s observation is that the general Chinese community has not been so interested in politics since the 1980s, before their dreams of democracy drowned in the blood of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre. That Xi is playing a very dangerous high-stakes game cannot be denied. If it breaks against him and he is deposed, then China will almost certainly face chaos and internal conflict.

Suppose Xi succeeds, however? Some of his statements about rule of law, following the constitution, and so forth suggest that at a minimum he is aiming to make China what the Germans call a Rechtsstaat—not a democracy, but a polity ruled fairly, by laws. That is certainly conceivable.

Like Mikhail Gorbachev (1931-) Xi perhaps also believes that Communism can work if purified. Should he reach the rule of law stage, however, he will discover that is not the case, as Gorbachev did. Without intending to, the last Soviet ruler built the legal and constitutional fire-escape that allowed the Soviet people not to rebuild communism, but rather to file safely out before it collapsed on them. If things break his way, and the rule of the “tigers” is ended, Xi could well do the same for China.

Or even more. Perhaps it is as a signal of the ultimate goal that we should read that phrase, in an official communist newspaper, about China having “a peaceful democratic transition.”  Certainly the words were printed intentionally and chosen to convey some meaning. What else, realistically, could that meaning be?

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