Foreign Correspondent

Natalie Portman boycotts Israeli prize; right wing goes ballistic

Residents of Ramallah in the West Bank remain angry at the Netanyahou government for expanding Israeli settlements and refusing to negotiate for a Palestinian state. Photo by Reese Erlich

Actress Natalie Portman, a strong supporter of Israel, has come under vicious attack for criticizing that country’s leadership. She now joins the club of scholars, journalists, and political leaders who are vilified by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his right-wing cohorts.

Portman was born in Jerusalem, and although her family left Israel when she was only three, she became fluent in Hebrew. She is a dual citizen of Israel and the United States.

While studying at Harvard, she became a research assistant for right-wing Zionist Alan Dershowitz. She directed and starred in a feature film presenting the Jewish side of the 1948 war that established the Israeli state.

So Portman is an unlikely candidate for vilification by conservative Jews. Here’s what happened.

Last November officials of the Genesis award, often referred to as Israel’s Nobel, announced that Portman had won this year’s prize. The award is partially funded by the prime minister’s office. In response Portman said, “I am proud of my Israeli roots and Jewish heritage. They are crucial parts of who I am.”

Then in late April she refused to attend the Genesis award ceremony in Jerusalem. In an Instagram post, Portman wrote, “I chose not to attend because I did not want to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to be giving a speech at the ceremony.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu is a ultra right-winger who has ended all peace talks with Palestinians, overseen vicious attacks on Palestinians in Gaza, threatened war against Iran, and is facing numerous corruption investigations.

Portman’s boycott of the ceremony caught a lot of people off guard. “She was a strong supporter of Israel,” Rebecca Vilcomerson told me. “Her action really came as a surprise.” Vilcomerson is executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a progressive organization with 15,000 dues paying members and 250,000 supporters. Vilcomerson applauded Portman’s principled stand.

The Jewish right wing, however, immediately began hyperventilating. Oren Hazan, a member of parliament from Netanyahu’s Likud Party, advocated stripping Portman of her Israeli citizenship. Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said her refusal to accept the award “has elements of anti-Semitism.” (He did not explain how Natalie Portman, a proud Jew, could be anti-Semitic.)

Ronny Perlman, a peace and human rights activist whom I contacted in Jerusalem, said such attacks have become commonplace in Israel’s increasingly conservative political atmosphere. “Every time someone criticizes the occupation [of Palestinian territory], they are accused of treason and some idiots demand stripping them of citizenship.”

Portman’s stand caused a furor, in part, because Israeli government policies are being sharply criticized in the United States and around the world.

Residents of Ramallah in the West Bank remain angry at the Netanyahou government for expanding Israeli settlements and refusing to negotiate for a Palestinian state. Photo by Reese Erlich

Since late March, tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza demonstrated on the border with Israel. Israeli soldiers fired at unarmed protesters, killing 45 and wounding 5500, according to UN sources. No Israelis were killed.

In early April right-wingers in Likud  scuttled a plan that would have given legal status to some of the tens of thousands of African asylum seekers now living in Israel. Israeli right-wingers, like their U.S. counterparts, want to expel all undocumented workers living within their borders.

In her Instagram statement, Portman seemed to indirectly criticize those Israeli policies. “The mistreatment of those suffering from today’s atrocities is simply not in line with my Jewish values. Because I care about Israel, I must stand up against violence, corruption, inequality, and abuse of power.”

Right-wing Jews also accused Portman of supporting the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). That movement calls for an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, full equality for Palestinians living in Israel and the right of exiled Palestinians to return to their land.

It’s a decentralized movement and tactics vary. Students supporting BDS have called for universities to sell off stocks of companies investing in Israel. Other activists have organized boycotts of Israeli products.

The BDS movement is extremely controversial in Israel and in the American Jewish community because it has picked up support, particularly on college campuses. Critics charge that the BDS movement ignores Palestinian failures to seek peace, among other issues.

For example, the Reform Jewish Movement, which describes itself as favoring Israel living in peace with its neighbors, writes, “We deeply deplore efforts that blame Israel for the failure of the peace process or that seek to use economic actions against Israel, including singling out for divestment companies working in or doing business with Israel. These efforts are more likely to hinder rather than advance the peace process.”

Portman made clear she did not support BDS. “I am not part of the BDS movement and do not endorse it. Like many Israelis and Jews around the world, I can be critical of the leadership in Israel without wanting to boycott the entire nation.”

Jewish Voice for Peace does support BDS, explained Vilcomerson, because it’s an effective, non-violent means to pressure the Israeli government. An international boycott helped get rid of the apartheid government in South Africa, for example.

“It’s a time-honored tactic used by social justice movements,” Vilcomerson said. “We would welcome Portman to be part of it.”

Objectively, Portman’s actions encouraged others to selectively boycott Israel. “The BDS movement created the atmosphere in which her action took place,” said Vilcomerson. “She did something very brave.”

I have a question to those who oppose BDS. Exactly what methods should critics of Israel use, given that both liberal and conservative governments have expanded settlements and failed to set conditions for a Palestinian state?

You can’t engage in armed struggle because that’s terrorism. You can’t throw rocks during demonstrations because that’s violent. You can’t hold peaceful demonstrations because that’s a cover for violence. You can’t boycott and divest because that’s an attack on all Jews. You can’t even refuse to accept an award because that’s anti-Semitic.

In reality, Netanyahu and many other Israeli politicians, don’t want to see any effective opposition that might end the Israeli occupation. That’s why Portman’s protest is so important.

My hat’s off to you, Natalie. Keep up the good work.


Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. The revised and updated edition of his book The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign Correspondent: The missile attacks on Syria

The Assad government continues to use chemical weapons -- and as long as four other countries are trying to control the land, the Syrian people won't be able to decide their own destiny

In 1998, al Qaeda killed 224 people when it attacked US embassies in East Africa. In retaliation, President Bill Clinton ordered a missile strike against what he described as an al Qaeda nerve gas factory in Sudan. For years he insisted that the attack had dealt a tough blow against terrorists. Turns out the chemical weapons factory was a pharmaceutical plant.

Now it looks like history is repeating itself.

The Assad government continues to use chemical weapons — and as long as four other countries are trying to control the land, the Syrian people won’t be able to decide their own destiny. Photo by Reese Erlich

On April 13, the United States, Britain, and France bombed three sites in Syria, which were supposedly key to Syria’s chemical weapons program. Russian sources claimed Syrian airfields were attacked as well.

Western missiles flattened the Barzeh Research Center in Damascus. Washington claimed it was a lab making chemical weapons.

Turns out it was a research facility making such products as antidotes for snake bites and children’s medicine. After the missile strike, the Assad government took foreign reporters to the site. The building was still smoldering but no chemical weapons fumes came from the structure.

Said Said, an official at the center told AFP, “If there were chemical weapons, we would not be able to stand here. I’ve been here since 5:30 am in full health — I’m not coughing.”

Such contrary evidence didn’t prevent the Pentagon from boasting of success. Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., director of the joint staff at the Pentagon, said the attacks are “going to set Syrian chemical weapons program back for years.”

President Donald Trump led the cheerleading, tweeting “Mission Accomplished,” a declaration that immediately reminded everyone of George W. Bush’s failed war in Iraq.

Even by the reactionary standards of Washington, the attack is unlikely to have an impact on Assad’s war plans.

“I can’t believe that the Pentagon seriously thought that this wimpy missile attack would actually serve as a deterrent in the future,” William Beeman, professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota and an author who has written extensively on the Middle East, told me. “This was a cosmetic strike. The Russians were warned, and it didn’t come close to attacking the full range of suspected chemical facilities.”

So what actually happened? On April 7, the White Helmets and other groups posted videos from the Damascus suburb of Douma showing people dying from what they described as a Syria air force chemical attack. They said the attack was likely chlorine gas and possibly the far more deadline nerve agent, sarin.

Douma is controlled by a right-wing political Islamist group known as the Army of Islam (Jaish el-Islam), which has been accused of using chemical weapons against the Kurds. It has a vested interest in discrediting the Assad regime.

Bob Fisk, a journalist with the British Independent, raised serious questions in his first-hand reporting from Douma. He interviewed a doctor who said people died from a lack of oxygen in underground tunnels, not chemical weapons.

Inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are hoping to gain entrance to Douma and if allowed in should be able to determine if banned weapons were used. The organization does not seek to determine who, if anyone, unleashed the chemicals.

It may be as difficult to determine what happened in Douma as it has been in previous alleged chemical attacks. Both sides have used chemical weapons in the past. Rebel groups such as the al Qaeda affiliate used sarin to attack Syrian troops in 2013, as I described in my book Inside Syria.

UN chemical weapons inspectors have verified cases of the Syrian air force dropping chlorine gas. Assad’s military has been willing to face international condemnation because chemical weapons are a relatively cheap method of killing, wounding, and demoralizing an enemy.

Regardless of what happened in Douma, the United States has no legal or moral right to bomb Syria. The UN Security Council never authorized this or other recent US wars (Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, or previous attacks on Syria). The Trump administration is also violating the US War Powers Act, which prohibits the president from waging war without Congressional approval.

The most recent missile attacks had less to do with chemical weapons than sending a message to Assad: The White House won’t allow you to control all of your country. Assad, with crucial help from Russia and Iran, has been defeating insurgent groups throughout most of the country. Top Washington leaders care little about human rights in Syria but very much want to control the country for geopolitical reasons.

Syria doesn’t have significant amounts of oil, but it does occupy a strategic location bordering Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. British and French empires competed for control of the region before World War II, and modern-day imperialists do the same.

The United States now has more than 2,000 troops in northern Syria and is allied with a Kurdish groupThe Wall Street Journaleditorial page, which often represents the views of the ultra-conservative business elite, now advocates creating a no fly zone in northern Syria, which would effectively carve out that region from Syrian government control.

Russia has its own imperialist interests in Syria. It has built two large military bases in western Syria with leases that could last 100 years. The base agreements give Russian citizens extra territoriality rights; they can’t be tried in Syrian courts for crimes committed in Syria. With Syria as a permanent ally, Russia seeks to block US influence in the region.

Vladimir Putin has “the same goal as Peter the Great,” said Beeman, “a permanent warm water port, an outpost in the Middle East, [and] … a watch post for U.S. activities in the area.”

The missile attacks on Syria lessen the already remote chances of a political settlement in Syria’s civil war. At the moment four countries have troops in Syria: United States, Turkey, Iran, and Russia. All foreign powers will have to pull out if the people of Syria are to determine their own future.

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. The revised and updated edition of his book The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook, Reese Erlich Foreign Correspondent; and visit his webpage.

Trump, Tokyo, and the Korean crisis

Trump and Kim Jong Un are both unpredictable, Japanese experts say

TOKYO — My reporting from Japan indicates President Donald Trump has managed to piss off both the political right and left.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spent many hours kissing butt with Trump, stroking his ego and stressing the similarity of their conservative political views. Then Trump waived aluminum and steel tariffs for Canada, Australia, and the EU — but not Japan.

Trump and Kim Jong Un are both unpredictable, Japanese experts say

Then Trump agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, catching Japanese leaders by surprise. Japanese of different political persuasions don’t trust Trump and doubt the talks will bear results.

“They are both unpredictable characters,” Koichi Nakano told me. “But Kim has a method to his madness. Trump is driven by ego.” Nakano is a left-leaning professor of political science and dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Tokyo’s Sophia University.

Sue Kim, a reporter with the right-wing South Korean daily Chosun Ilbonewspaper, told me South Koreans and Japanese are worried about Trump’s call for a pre-emptive military attack on Pyongyang. “Trump is sending out confusing messages,” she told me. “That’s the scary part for us. What is the end goal?”

President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) is scheduled to meet with Kim Jong Un on April 27. Then Trump and Kim are supposed to meet in May or June. Nakano credited President Moon for lessening tensions in the region. Moon was worried that Trump’s aggressive rhetoric might start a war. So Moon invited athletes from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to participate in the Winter Olympics and started a campaign to lower tensions.

“Moon acted boldly, “said Prof. Nakano. “It was quite a diplomatic feat.”

But such diplomatic prowess must continue if Trump and Kim are to actually meet let alone reach an agreement. The United States has sabotaged previous accords, and that was before the DPRK had nuclear weapons.

Back in 1994, the United States signed an agreement that allowed the DPRK to develop nuclear power but not atomic weapons. President Bill Clinton and then President Kim Jong Il, father of the current DPRK leader, made a historic breakthrough that aimed to establish normal diplomatic relations after years of hot and cold war.

The DPRK agreed to stop its nuclear weapons program while western powers agreed to help North Korea construct two light-water nuclear reactors, whose spent fuel couldn’t be used to develop bombs. While waiting for the reactors to be built, the west would provide heavy fuel oil to power the country’s electric grid. The United States pledged to eliminate sanctions and remove the DPRK from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Then both sides would establish diplomatic relations.

The DPRK lived up to its end of the bargain. But hawkish Republicans and Democrats didn’t like what became known as the “Agreed Framework,” claiming it would allow North Korea to develop nuclear weapons. Congress refused to approve the full cost of fuel oil, thus undercutting the agreement and eliminating the possibility of testing DPRK intentions.

The western allies never built the promised reactors, the Clinton administration only lifted some sanctions, and didn’t take North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism. By the time George W. Bush was elected in 2000, Washington was ready to scuttle the agreement entirely, blaming North Korea for the failure, of course.

In 2002 Bush came up with his cockamamie campaign against the “Axis of Evil,” which included Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and North Korea. An orthodox Marxist-Leninist state, a nationalist dictatorship and a theocratic Islamic regime were somehow in cahoots to destroy the United States. The Agreed Framework was buried.

Had Washington carried out the signed agreement, the current U.S.-Korea crisis could have been avoided. Instead, in 2006 the DPRK tested its first nuclear bomb, claiming it had the right to defend itself from outside attack. The United States still has 28,500 troops stationed in the Republic of Korea, and navy vessels carrying nuclear missiles cruise nearby.

North Korea’s dictatorial regime has angered ordinary Japanese in a variety of ways. In the 1970s and 1980s, DPRK soldiers kidnapped Japanese citizens and forced them to become language instructors and spies. For years DPRK officials denied the kidnappings. Now they say all the victims have been returned to Japan or have died. Conservative Japanese politicians say some are still missing and use the issue to stir up tensions.

Similarly, last year The DPRK test fired conventional ballistic missiles over Japan that landed in the Pacific Ocean. While the missiles weren’t aimed at Japan, they nonetheless scared people. Prime Minister Abe won the 2017 parliamentary elections, in part, by playing on fears of a North Korean attack. Abe and other conservatives use concerns about a Korean attack to justify expansion of Japan’s military.

Leftist opponents of Abe say Japan doesn’t need an offensive military. The DPRK threat is exaggerated, according to Nakano. “North Korea is not going to launch a missile attack on Japan,” he said.

The United States faces a similar debate. The Trump administration claims North Korea poses an immediate threat because its missiles may reach the U.S. mainland. In reality DPRK has a limited arsenal of nuclear weapons and is highly unlikely to launch an offensive attack. Any first strike by the DPRK would bring a devastating response by the United States and South Korea, wiping out Pyongyang.

“North Korea is not going to launch a missile and end its regime,” said Nakano. “It sees the missiles as defense against the United States.”

The DPRK leadership sees what happened in other countries, according to Nakano. “If Iraq or Libya had nuclear weapons,” he said, “the United States wouldn’t have attacked.”

Conservative reporter Kim strongly opposes the DPRK regime, but doesn’t think it will act irrationally. “I used to think Kim was a crazy maniac,” she said. “He is controlling, but rational. Above all Kim wants his regime to survive.”

The Trump administration faces some stark choices. The DPRK will not likely give up its nuclear weapons. The best outcome of negotiations would halt expansion of the nuclear program in return for economic aid and normalization of relations with the west. At worst, the talks could fall apart in mutual recriminations and heighten the possibility of war.

The choice is up to Washington.


Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. The revised and updated edition of his book The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook, Reese Erlich Foreign Correspondent; and visit his webpage.





Foreign Correspondent: Inside the US war in Yemen

Demonstrations against the Saudi regime continued for several years after the Arab Spring began in 2011. Here Saudis in the mostly Shia area of eastern Saudi Arabia demand freedom for political prisoners.

One of the most important US Senate votes in decades took place recently, and few people know it happened.

On March 20, Senators voted on whether to stop US support for Saudi Arabia’s vicious war in Yemen by invoking the War Powers Act.

Demonstrations against the Saudi regime continued for several years after the Arab Spring began in 2011. Here Saudis in the mostly Shia area of eastern Saudi Arabia demand freedom for political prisoners.

More than 5,000 Yemenis have died and tens of thousands have been injured since the war began three years ago. The Saudis launched a horrific bombing campaign aimed at civilian infrastructure, schools and hospitals. Saudi Arabia established an air, sea and land blockade, which has cut off supplies of food and medicine. As a direct result, a massive cholera epidemic has broken out. A UN Security Council report showed 22.2 million people out of a total population of 27.5 million need humanitarian assistance, a 3.4 million jump compared with last year.

The war began when the Obama administration gave a green light to Saudi Arabia in 2015. The Trump administration continues the effort, providing intelligence, and selling the Saudis sophisticated weapons, ammunition, and aircraft parts. The US. Air Force refuels Saudi planes in mid-air.

Back in 2015, Saudi leaders proudly proclaimed they would win the war in three weeks. “They underestimated their enemy,” Shireen Al-Adeimi told me in an interview. She’s a Harvard doctoral candidate who was born and raised in Yemen. The Saudis and their coalition partners from the United Arab Emirates “don’t have the ground soldiers. So they launched a massive bombing campaign.”

Saudi leaders argue they are fighting Iranian proxies in Yemen, and Iran seeks to destroy their country. For them, it’s an existential battle. The Pentagon argues that the United States only plays an advisory role and provides “non-combat assistance” and thus isn’t violating the War Powers Act.

In reality, “the war has US fingerprints all over it,” said Al-Adeimi.

Washington could shut down the Yemen War overnight. It’s not widely known, but US contractors are the only technicians loading bombs and maintaining Saudi war planes. They operate under control of the U.S. government.

“If the US doesn’t give permission,” to the contractors, a former US diplomat told me, “it would shut down the Saudi Air Force.”

In the Senate, liberal Democrats and principled Republicans introduced a measure under the War Powers Act to withhold US support for the Yemen War. The Act provides that the president must seek Congressional approval for any military activity abroad lasting more than 60 days.

Progressives like Bernie Sanders and some liberal Democrats wanted to end the undeclared war. Five Republicans also voted for the bill. The Republican senators were particularly concerned with the constitutional issue, according to Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, executive editor of The American Conservative magazine.

“They are fed up with successive presidential administrations that say they can wage war without Congressional approval,” Vlahos told me in an interview.

Libertarians and principled Republicans have long opposed US military intervention in the Middle East. Vlahos doesn’t buy the Pentagon argument that US troops are purely advisory. “Refueling jets is more than advising soldiers how to use their guns.”

On March 20, the Senate voted 55-44 to send the bill back to the Foreign Relations Committee, killing it for the time being. While the Senate effort failed, the battle against US intervention continues.

To better understand the Yemen catastrophe, let’s go back to the Arab Spring of 2011. Mass demonstrations had brought down the pro-US dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt. Popular uprisings threatened regimes in Syria, Bahrain, and even Saudi Arabia. In Yemen, the people were determined to overthrow the corrupt, pro-US dictator Ali Saleh.

So the Obama administration and Saudi leaders decided to oust Saleh in favor of his vice president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Unfortunately for them, Hadi proved to be incompetent and had little popular support. The Houthi movement based in northern Yemen seized the capital of Sanaa and all of northern Yemen. Hadi fled and has spent almost all of the past three years issuing decrees from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Ansar Allah, commonly known as the Houthis, is a conservative political Islamist group based mostly among Shia Muslims. Human rights groups have documented Houthi human rights violations such as illegal use of landmines, and indiscriminate shelling of civilians in both Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Ansar Allah receives political and financial support from Iran, and several UN reports indicate Iran provides weapons as well.  Iranian officials I have interviewed deny that Tehran provides military support to the Houthis and, in fact, considers Yemen a very low priority compared to their activities in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. In reality, the Houthis are an independent political and military movement not under Iran’s control.

Saudi vilification of the Houthis serves as the excuse for a massive Saudi bombing campaign. It also deflects from Saudi cooperation with the local Al Qaeda affiliate.

For years successive US administrations have used drones to assassinate members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group infamous for training the “underwear bomber” and carrying out numerous attacks on civilians.  

Washington argues it must keep US troops in Yemen and continue drone strikes to fight AQAP. But the Saudi war in Yemen has helped strengthen AQAP.

Saudi affiliated fighters have joined with AQAP to fight the Houthis. Saudi Arabia and Al Qaeda both profess strong, right-wing interpretations of Sunni Islam and use that as a justification to attack the mostly Shia Muslim Houthi movement.

To make matters even more complicated, the Saudi alliance with the UAE is fraying at the seams. The UAE recently decided to back the Southern Transitional Council, a Yemeni group that demands secession for the southern part of Yemen. The STC, with UAE backing, now controls much of the key southern Yemeni city of Aden, causing great anger in Riyadh.     

So the war in Yemen does not pit endangered Saudi Arabia against expansionist Iran, as portrayed in Washington. The Trump administration backs Saudi Arabia as part of its geopolitical battle for hegemony in the region. In addition Saudi Arabia has some of the world’s largest oil reserves, and the region remains an important source of US oil company profits.

The Senate failed to invoke the War Powers Act, but the relatively close vote indicates the level of discontent with the Yemen War. “Forcing the vote was a big deal,” said editor Vlahos. “Most people don’t know about it.”

The United States is now at war in six countries in the broader Middle East: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia. There will come a day when the American people understand the massive cost in lives and treasure. The day of reckoning will come sooner than the Trump administration thinks.


Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. The revised and updated edition of his book “The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis” ­will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook, Reese Erlich Foreign Correspondent; and visit his webpage.

Foreign Correspondent: Australia solved the gun problem. We can too

A lot of us don't realize our retirement funds are in companies that make guns like the deadly AR-15


Progressives aren’t supposed to say this. But none of the major gun control proposals now being debated in Washington would actually stop mass shootings. I know that sounds heretical, or even worse, like an echo of the National Rifle Association line. But it’s true.

An AR-15 style assault rifle, perfectly legal in the US

Let’s take a look:

Ban sales of AR-15 and other assault rifles. Assault rifles are deadly. But other semi-automatic weapons, which would not be banned, are just as dangerous. And even if all semi-automatic rifles were banned, Americans still have access to plenty of deadly ordinance. In 1966 a shooter at the University of Texas used a bolt action and pump action rifles to murder 14 and wound 31.

Better background checks will stop the shooters. Such checks might stop a random shooter or two, but almost all the recent mass killers would have passed background checks. Proposed stricter background checks would not stop gun sales to the severely mentally ill.

Require gun purchasers to be 21. Ask any teens who have had an adult buy them bottles of alcohol how well that works. In a number of recent shootings, young teens stole guns from their parents’ gun cabinets.

There’s a fundamental flaw in gun reform laws currently under consideration. America is flooded with firearms. Potential mass murderers have access to tens of millions of legal and illegal guns. The spousal abuser or the psychopath can find a very deadly weapon with relative ease. So even the most positive, partial reforms won’t solve the problem.

Don’t get me wrong. I support significant reform measures — but for political reasons — not because they will have much immediate impact. The NRA’s stranglehold on US politics must be broken. Oregon took a good step recently by prohibiting domestic abusers and those subject to restraining orders from owning guns. Banning assault rifles and high capacity magazines would definitely weaken the gun lobby’s power.

And I think it’s time Americans seriously consider gun reform that would actually stop mass killings. Australians did it and so can we.

The US and Australia share some common history. The British sent settlers to occupy colonial land, although the Australians had to get out of prison first. Both countries encouraged gun ownership by white settlers, Rebecca Peters, a representative of Australia’s International Action Network on Small Arms, told me. “Early settlers depended on killing animals and the indigenous people who lived there before.”

And in modern times both countries had strong gun lobbies paid for by firearm manufacturers. The Australian gun lobby had blocked effective gun control at both the federal and state levels.

For Australians, everything changed on April 28, 1996. That day a young curly haired, blond man brought an AR-15 and another semi–automatic rifle to the popular tourist town of Pt. Arthur in southeastern Tasmania. He fired randomly, killing 35 people and wounding 18. The massacre of men, women and children shocked Australians much like the Parkland, Florida impacted Americans.

But the Aussies did something about it.

Just 12 days after the shooting, conservative Prime Minister John Howard brought together legislators to pass comprehensive, national gun control laws. But what appeared to be a legislative miracle was actually the culmination of years of grass-roots efforts.

Local activists and public health professionals had been educating the public since the late 1980s, said Peters. They found a sympathetic audience among trade unionists and some Labor Party politicians. “We built a solid grassroots movement,” she said. “We didn’t just leap into tragedy mode after a shooting.”

Activists called for universal gun registration, and it was just as controversial in Australia as in the US. The gun lobby argued that the government would confiscate everyone’s guns.

Simon Chapman, emeritus professor in public health at the University of Sydney, remembers the most effective argument gun reform campaigners made on that topic.

“We register cars,” he would say. “We register boats. We even register dogs. So what’s the problem in registering guns?”

So in the spring of 1996, the federal parliament passed a comprehensive measures that included:

All semi-automatic rifles and pump action shotguns were banned, as were high capacity magazines.

The government purchased existing firearms that had been banned, paying retail plus 10 percent.

All firearms were registered and new buyers were required to prove a “genuine reason” for gun ownership such as hunting or target practice at a shooter’s club.

New gun owners must wait 28 days to take delivery, be subject to a comprehensive background check, and take a gun safety course.

The results were striking. There have been no mass shootings. Gun murders and suicides have dropped precipitously. There are 200 fewer deaths every year as a result of gun control, according to Peters.

And, oh yes, hunters continue to hunt, and target shooters continue to plink. No armies of jack booted police have stormed private residences to seize weapons.

Australia’s stringent gun control laws aren’t likely to be adopted in the U.S. anytime soon. But we can learn something from their political organizing.

Today, the NRA stops even the smallest gun reforms from passing the U.S Congress. But other, seemingly undefeatable lobbies nave been weakened. Look at Big Tobacco and the right-wing Cuba Lobby. The NRA could be next.

Today the NRA faces a formidable enemy. The Parkland high school students have sparked grass-roots efforts among other students and their parents. They’ve sat in at the Florida state house and in the U.S. Senate.

Peters said grass roots organizing defeated the gun lobby in Australia and it can be done in the US as well. “The NRA uses power of intimidation,” she said. “And they often win the public relations war. But they can be defeated.”

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks in 48 Hills. The revised and updated edition of his book The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of US and Policy ­will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich, friend him on Facebook, Reese Erlich Foreign Correspondent, and visit his webpage

Foreign Correspondent: The Russians aren’t the only election hackers

The US frequently interfered in Afghan elections in support of one corrupt leader or another. Here an Afghan farmer who used to grow opium, a major source of corruption among Afghan leaders. Photo: Reese Erlich

Welcome to the latest Washington crisis. The American people are supposed to be petrified at the threat posed by Russian spies who hack our emails, buy ads on Facebook and impersonate Americans in chat rooms. The evil Ruskies have the audacity to use phony websites to divide us over issues of racism and immigration — as if we aren’t perfectly capable of doing that ourselves.  

The US frequently interfered in Afghan elections in support of one corrupt leader or another. Here an Afghan farmer who used to grow opium, a major source of corruption among Afghan leaders. Photo: Reese Erlich

And these no-goodnicks are getting ready to do it all over again for the 2018 elections!

Of course, the United States has been meddling in other countries’ elections for decades, sometimes resulting in the overthrow of governments and civilian deaths. But more on that in a moment.

What are the major allegations against the Russians so far?

* They hacked the email servers of the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton campaign. They gave the embarrassing material to Wikileaks, which made it public. Wikileaks denies the data came from the Russians.

* Trump campaign officials met with Russian diplomats and operatives in hopes of getting negative info on Clinton.

* Special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians for various crimes associated with creating phony websites and travelling to the United States to organize political rallies. The Russians sought to discredit Clinton and elect Trump.

Trump officials, and Trump himself, may have committed all kinds of crimes, including lying to the FBI, money laundering, tax evasion and obstruction of justice. But there’s no evidence that the Russians succeeded in electing Trump, or even had a major impact on the elections.

The Russians didn’t hack voting machines. So there was no Russia-inspired vote fraud.

And even the Department of Justice, in its indictment of the 13 Russians, admitted, “There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”

Hillary Clinton lost the election because Trump’s campaign lies fooled people. She ran a bad campaign, which failed to mobilize the progressive Democratic Party base.

But even assuming the worst charges against the Russians are true, they pale by comparison to U.S. meddling in elections around the world.

Dov Levin, a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University, studied 117 cases of United States and Soviet/Russian interference in elections from 1948-2000. The United States accounted for a whopping 69% of the cases.

For example, the United States intervened in every Italian election for decades starting in 1948, according to Levin.

Italy had a strong Communist Party, which had spearheaded resistance to the Nazis during World War II. The United States feared that a democratically elected communist government would pull Italy out of NATO and either become neutral or even ally with the USSR. So the United States used any means necessary to keep pro-U.S. parties in power.

The CIA and other agencies shoveled money to the U.S.-allied Christian Democratic Party.

“The money often disappeared into the villas and Swiss bank accounts of politicians,” Levin told me. “We worsened corruption in Italian politics.”

By the early 1990s, Italy’s Cold War parties dissolved in the face of corruption scandals. “The whole system collapsed into dust,” said Levin.

Some United States intelligence officials justify such illegal interventions as necessary because we back the good guys. That view is echoed by some in the mainstream media.

New York Times reporter Scott Shane wrote, “American [electoral] interventions have generally been aimed at helping non-authoritarian candidates challenge dictators or otherwise promoting democracy.”

Sorry guys, the record doesn’t bear that out. The United States occasionally supports a centrist — but only so long as he supports U.S. policy. The United States often backs right-wingers who use violence to stay in power. 

In the 1980s, the United States created and financed a Nicaraguan rebel group called the Contras. They sought to overthrow the Sandinista government, which had come to power in a popular 1979 revolution.

The contras murdered more than a hundred teachers, doctors and other civilians working for the government in a U.S.-sponsored terror campaign. One faction of the contras shipped cocaine to United States to pay for their armaments. Those shipments helped create the crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

The Sandinistas won the presidency in free and fair elections in 1984. But in 1990 the United States made an all-out push against the Sandinistas. The CIA pumped money into the opposition party and planted derogatory news stories, using a classic CIA technique.

The CIA fed stories to German newspapers claiming Sandinista leaders had Swiss bank accounts filled with ill-gotten gains. The opposition used those reports to great effect, and it won the elections.

U.S. officials argued that fighting communism sometimes required backing nefarious characters. If fighting communism was the real U.S. motivation, then it would presumably would have stopped after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. But nooooooo.

The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and it soon faced a political dilemma. It had to convince people at home and abroad that the United States was building a democratic nation. But the drug dealing warlords running the government weren’t interested in free and fair elections. They just wanted power.

The United States installed Hamid Karzai as president in 2002, but by 2009 he was causing problems for the United States. I spoke with Matthew Hoh, who was a State Department official in Afghanistan at the time.

“Karzai was weary of the war,” he said. “He opposed the U.S. airstrikes on civilians. He wanted talks with the Taliban, and we were against that.”

The CIA tried to use the 2009 elections to oust Karzai. First the elections were delayed by three months, a violation of the country’s constitution. Then the CIA promoted news articles, rallies and cash payments to politicians in an effort to create an anti-Karzai coalition.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in his memoirs called the effort a “clumsy and failed putsch.”

But Karzai outsmarted the United States through massive vote fraud. Karzai won when the main opposition leader withdrew from a runoff election.

Of course, the Russians have also interfered in elections, most recently in Ukraine and other areas formerly controlled by the USSR. They also sought, unsuccessfully, to impact the 2016 U.S. elections.

But contrary to the U.S. government portrayal of a sophisticated ring of cyber spies, the Russian efforts were decidedly old school and not likely to have much impact.

In the old days, the Russians would romance secretaries and entice them to steal files from their politician bosses’ file cabinets. These Russian “Romeos” would then plant the compromising documents in friendly media. Nowadays the spies can hack email servers and make embarrassing information public online.

The United States shouldn’t interfere in other countries elections, including those in Russia. And Russia shouldn’t interfere in our elections. But it’s time to stop the hysteria in Washington that somehow Russia has succeeded in undermining U.S. democracy. It hasn’t. Only we can do that.

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks in 48 Hills. The revised and updated edition of his book The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of US and Policy ­will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich, friend him on Facebook, Reese Erlich Foreign Correspondent, and visit his webpage

Trump’s new plan: Arm theater ushers

President Trump has asked the Defense Dept. to help him acquire enough guns to arm every theater usher in America

WASHINGTON DC — President Donald Trump announced new plans today to combat mass shootings: arming movie theater ushers.

“When we’ve locked down schools by arming teachers,” he said at a Rose Garden press conference, “mass shooters will inevitably turn to movie theaters. We’ve got to be proactive.”

President Trump has asked the Defense Dept. to help him acquire enough guns to arm every theater usher in America

“Movie ushers, with their black suit jackets and running shoes, can easily conceal a semi automatic hand gun and then run after the perp,” said the president in apparently off the cuff remarks. “We’ll have a Glock in every sock.”

The press conference was initially called after the president’s meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But the movie usher question dominated the session. Chancellor Merkel declined to offer an opinion on the issue, noting that the Glock company is Austrian, not German.

Critics were quick to point out that untrained, 18-year movie ushers might not provide the best protection against angry movie patrons with AR-15s.

“We strongly oppose arming ushers,” said Sarah Whitehead, spokesperson for Movie Goers for a Quiet Evening, an advocacy group. “We think handgun permits at cinemas should be limited to movie managers.”

“Managers are more mature and responsible,” she noted. “They’ve got experience handling crowds during midnight movies.”

White House sources said arming ushers is only part of a much broader safety program. “President Trump realizes that movie theaters aren’t the only place mass shooting might occur,” one highly placed White House source said. “We have to consider arming lifeguards at city pools and peanut vendors at ballparks. Eventually, we’ll have more good guys with guns than bad guys.”

Clyde C. Clack, a spokesperson for the arms industry, provided some insight in an exclusive interview. “Normally, we let the National Rifle Association represent our views,” Lever said, “but this issue is just too important. It involves not only the safety of young Junior Mints consumers, but the health of the gun industry.”

He explained that years ago, arms manufacturers figured out that only selling guns to hunters severely limited gun sales. “So we helped hype the fear of home invasions. Everyone needs a gun to stop those intruders.”

“But our research shows that the maximum number of guns an individual will buy for self defense is 25. So that market is almost saturated.”

“Now–with the market for school teachers, movie ushers and peanut vendors– why it’s almost limitless.”

“When these proposals are adopted, we’ll be guaranteeing our workers jobs and our board members profits for years to come,” he said with a broad smile.

A few details need to be worked out, however. President Trump’s remarks caught aides off guard. They quickly scrambled to figure out how movie ushers, who can barely afford the cost of clip-on bow ties, will be able to buy semi-automatic pistols costing $600.

“It may require government subsidies,” said the official. “But at least you can feel secure dropping your kids off at the mall movie theater so they can see the latest zombie apocalypse movie in peace.”

Columnist Reese Erlich dabbles in satire, of which this is a little dab. Prior to filing a law suit, please note that most of the above information isn’t true, although it may be some day.

Foreign Correspondent: The US occupation of northern Syria

In 2014 the US used the Islamic State attacks on Yazidis as the excuse to bomb and later send troops to northern Syria. Here aid workers provide food for Yazidis in 2014. (Photo: Reese Erlich)

When President Obama started bombing Syria in 2014, he enjoyed bipartisan support in Washington. Americans were appalled by the atrocities of the Islamic State, which had massacred Yazidis, and seized swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.

In 2014 the US used the Islamic State attacks on Yazidis as the excuse to bomb and later send troops to northern Syria. Here aid workers provide food for Yazidis in 2014. (Photo: Reese Erlich)

Far from being a humanitarian intervention, however, I warned at the time that the US was on its way to yet another Middle East war. “Once again, the U.S. is waging an open-ended war with no concern for the long-term well-being of the people in the region,” I wrote. 

And, sure enough, with the Islamic State on the ropes, the Trump administration has announced that some 2000 US troops will stay permanently in the Kurdish region of northern Syria. Ostensibly, the troops will fight IS remnants and combat Iranian influence. In reality, the US seeks to remove President  Basher al Assad, or failing that, dismember Syria into zones controlled by outside powers.

On Feb. 7, US jets and artillery attacked pro-Assad forces in Khusham, an oil-rich area in north eastern Syria outside of the Kurdish region. The US-allied SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) had captured the area from the Islamic State and Assad-allied troops were trying to take it. Needless to say, the fighting had nothing to do with Yazidis or fighting remnants of the Islamic State.

Then on Feb. 9, Israel bombed a dozen sites in Syria after Assad’s artillery shot down an Israeli jet fighter.  The US is allied with Israel against Assad, Russia and Iran.

The clashes are just the latest indication of the expanded role played by outside powers. And the US occupation won’t be easy. The SDF leadership currently allied with the US have their own agenda. And Turkey considers that group to be terrorists and has sent its army into Syria in an effort to wipe them out.

How did the US get into what may become yet another Mideast quagmire?

In September 2014 the US had no allies on the ground when it began bombing the Islamic State in Syria. The CIA and Pentagon had spent over a billion dollars trying to create pro-US rebel groups that would fight Assad. Both agencies failed miserably as the ostensible guerrillas took US arms and promptly handed them over to terrorist groups fighting in Syria.

But there was one existing insurgent group that effectively battled the IS. The Kurdish based PYD (Democratic Union Party) and its armed wing the YPG (People’s Protection Units) fought and won a heroic battle against the IS in the Kurdish city of Kobane. The Pentagon started arming and training the YPG, and later the SDF, which includes both Syrian Arabs and Kurds.

The problem, from a US perspective, was that the PYD is affiliated with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) in Turkey, a leftist group with a quasi-anarchist ideology developed by their leader Abdullah Ocalan, now imprisoned in Turkey.

The PYD promotes women’s participation and leadership, unique among rebels in the region. It has created local councils advocating equal rights for all of Syria’s religious and ethnic groups. The PYD seeks to extend its system throughout Syria, not just in Rojava, their term for the Kurdish region.

The Pentagon was willing to ignore the PYD’s leftism and frequent praise of Ocalan because SDF could really fight.

Turkey’s leaders, however, denounce the PKK and PYD as terrorists. The PKK does engage in armed struggle, but it’s  aimed at Turkey’s military and police, not civilians.  The accusation of terrorism conveniently covers up Turkish government repression of its Kurdish minority.

Turkey invaded northern Syria in 2016 and seized part of the Kurdish region in order to prevent the SDF from creating a contiguous territory along the Turkish border. Turkey, like every foreign power invading Syria, proclaimed their incursions as temporary. But it set up military bases and ran electricity wires from Turkey into the Syrian cities under their control.

Then on January 20 this year Turkey launched an invasion of Afrin, an isolated area in the far northwest of Rojava. Turkish bombing of the city has already killed 150 civilians and wounded 300, according to Sinam Mohammad, the representative of the Syrian Democratic Council in the US. The council is the political wing of the SDF.

She told me that the ultimate goal of Turkey is to drive the Kurds out of Afrin in order to create a buffer zone under permanent Turkish control. She accuses the Turkish Army of ethnic cleansing. “They want to kick out the Kurds,” she said.                                                                

The Turkish military created a Syrian Arab militia, appropriating the name Free Syrian Army. The FSA developed some popular support based on Arab hostility towards Kurds and complaints that the PYD monopolizes power in areas it controls.

The FSA also stands accused of war crimes for mutilating the body of a Kurdish female fighter. FSA members shot a video of themselves standing over the partially naked body of the woman with her left breast mutilated.  Sinam Mohammad compared such actions to atrocities carried out by terrorist groups.

“What’s the difference between them and Islamic State?” she said.

But the US has no plans to prevent the Turks from taking Afrin, putting the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians in peril.

The Pentagon seems to be drawing a line at the Rojava town of  Manbij, some 37 miles east of Afrin. The US sent high ranking army officers into Manjib, riding in vehicles prominently displaying US flags, accompanied by a New York Times reporter to make sure the message was received in Ankara.

For the moment, it appears the US military will maintain its alliance with Kurdish forces while Turkey will continue its military opposition, but within limits.

In my opinion, the PYD is playing a very dangerous game allying with the US. It may think the US will protect the Kurds, but nothing in history suggests it will be a reliable partner. And the people of Rojava will suffer.

“The goal of the US isn’t to help the Kurds in Rojava,” an American volunteer who fought with the YPG told me. “The goal of the US is to kill Bashar al-Assad or, if that proves impossible, to destroy the Syrian Arab Republic. If they did care about the Kurds, the US would have stopped the Turkish attack on Afrin.”

There’s an old saying commonly used in the Middle East, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” We Americans have another old saying, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks in 48 Hills. The revised and updated edition of his book The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of US and Policy ­will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich, friend him on Facebook, Reese Erlich Foreign Correspondent, and visit his webpage

Foreign Correspondent: Cuba’s ‘sonic attack’ on diplomats is pure science fiction

Cuba has no motive to attack US diplomats at the exact time US-Cuba relations were improving and helping the Cuban economy. Here a privately owned snack bar in Havana, reflecting one of many types of economic reforms. Photo: Reese Erlich

HAVANA — The mainstream media stories were straight out of a science fiction movie. Somebody in Cuba was aiming a super sophisticated “sonic weapon” at US diplomats here in Havana, causing them to experience hearing loss, dizziness, nausea, severe headaches and even brain damage similar to a concussion.

Cuba has no motive to attack US diplomats at the exact time US-Cuba relations were improving and helping the Cuban economy. Here a privately owned snack bar in Havana, reflecting one of many types of economic reforms. Photo: Reese Erlich

From December 2016 through February 2017, according to the Trump administration, 22 American diplomats heard strange sounds in their homes and hotel rooms. They suffered a variety of debilitating symptoms.

Trump administration sources told CNN, “The device was so sophisticated, it was outside the range of audible sound. And it was so damaging, that one US diplomat now needs to use a hearing aid.”

President Trump blamed the Cuban government for the attacks. “I do believe Cuba’s responsible,” he said at a Rose Garden press conference. “I do believe that.”

Other administration officials blamed the Russians or rogue elements in the Cuban government.

I went back to Cuba a year later to find out what happened to the sonic weapon story. Turns out the US has produced no evidence that an attack took place, let alone one directed by the Cuban government. The FBI made four visits to Cuba and could find no indications of an attack, according to conservative Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who visited Havana this month.

“This whole thing is bullshit,” one mainstream reporter living in Havana told me.

But the bullshit had serious consequences. Last September, the US used the incident to expel 15 Cuban diplomats from their Washington Embassy and withdrew half the staff from the US Embassy in Havana.

All the US consular staff were evacuated except for one person handling emergency visas. Cubans must now travel to US consulates in Colombia or Mexico to apply for visas, costing them thousands of dollars on top of the existing stiff processing fees.

The Trump administration issued warnings that US visitors to Cuba won’t be safe in a hotel where the alleged attacks took place. To date no tourists have reported coming under sonic weapon attack.

The Cuban government interviewed 300 people living near the homes of US diplomats along with workers at the Hotel Capri where the attacks allegedly took place. Not one person heard the noises claimed by the diplomats nor did they suffer any of the symptoms.

Independent scientists noted that a sonic weapon that caused hearing loss, if it even existed, would have to be mounted on a truck in front of the diplomat’s house.

Sonic waves can’t cause a concussion, according to Jürgen Altmann, a physicist at the Technische Universität Dortmund in Germany. Altmann told The New York Times, “I know of no acoustic effect that can cause concussion symptoms. Sound going through the air cannot shake your head.

The sonic weapon theory proved so ridiculous that the administration has quietly stopped citing it. The US now speculates that some virus or other medical attack may have been responsible.

So what’s really going on? The medical ailments may be rooted in psychosomatic illness. One person can experience symptoms, and in the pressure cooker environment faced by some diplomats, could attribute the problems to an attack. Others then attribute different, unexplained symptoms to a similar attack.

I contacted my old friend Dr. Wendel Brunner, the former public health director of Contra Costa County, who has experience in the field. 

“Maybe it is some other, perfectly normal illness, infection, or contamination that is compounded by anxiety of staff being in a tense situation in Cuba,” he told me.

The diplomats’ physical symptoms may be real, he noted, but fear and anxiety may have led to attributing all kinds of symptoms to a non-existent attack.

“I am sure lots of visitors to Cuba have dizziness, headaches, etc., but we don’t hear about it because they don’t work in the Embassy.”

“It seems all too convenient that the Embassy is under mysterious ‘attack’ at a time when the Trump administration wants to disrupt relations with Cuba,” Dr. Brunner added.

So what’s really going on?

The Cuban government certainly has no motivation to debilitate US diplomats. The alleged attacks began in December 2016 just as the US and Cuba were rushing to solidify their newly established relations that benefited the Cuban economy.

The Russians, who the US has speculated were potential attackers, have absolutely no reason to wreck US-Cuban relations. Besides, no third party could engage in such attacks on foreign diplomats without the knowledge of the tightly controlled Cuban intelligence agencies.

Right-wing Cuban Americans in Florida and New Jersey would certainly benefit from disrupting US-Cuban relations. They opposed President Obama’s openings to Cuba and pressured Trump to scale back US visits to the island.  

“There is an anti-Cuban mafia in Miami, and we are victims of their dirty work that involve certain people very close to the governing circles of the United States,” said Col. Ramiro Ramírez, the Cuban official responsible for security of diplomats.

But to date the Cubans have offered no evidence that the right-wingers were responsible. So for now, we have to await more evidence before the cause of the illnesses might be explained.

The Trump administration has declined to make any of the victims available for press interviews nor have their medical records been evaluated by independent sources.

But one thing is certain. US visitors to Cuba are in no danger of being zapped by sonic weapons in their hotel rooms. Come on down and see for yourself.

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column on international affairs appears every two weeks in 48 Hills. He has visited Cuba 15 times since 1968. His home page is; follow him on Twitter @ReeseErlich or on Facebook, Reese Erlich foreign correspondent.

Foreign Correspondent: Trump’s phony support for Iran’s popular protests

Iranians overwhelmingly oppose Trump's policies. Reese Erlich photo

During a recent reporting trip to Iran, I interviewed almost two dozen people at random in both rich and poor neighborhoods of Tehran. All the middle and upper-middle class people I spoke with said the government of President Hassan Rouhani had made economic progress, although not as much as they wanted. All the working-class Iranians said they had seen no economic improvements since Rouhani’s election in 2013.

Iranians overwhelmingly oppose Trump’s policies. Reese Erlich photo

Starting in late December, spontaneous protests broke out among young, working-class Iranians. While hundreds demonstrated in Tehrantens of thousands demonstrated in eighty towns and smaller cities. To date, the government has arrested an estimated 1,000 people and twenty-two have died. The 2009 Green Movement mobilized much larger crowds but attracted mostly intellectuals and other middle-income folks.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that Iran’s economy will grow 4.2 percent by March. But, just as in the United States, very little of the country’s wealth trickles down.

A construction worker told me he has no regular place to live while working in Tehran. Sometimes contractors provide refurbished shipping containers as living quarters. Sometimes he stays with relatives. He blamed Iran’s economic problems on the economic sanctions imposed by the United States. He also blamed the Iranian government for wasting billions of dollars on wars in Syria and Iraq.

 “First you have to feed your own people and then go around helping others,” he told me. He criticized widespread Iranian corruption. When the Revolutionary Guard builds projects, for example, workers often don’t get paid on time and then the officers say, “Oh, we spent the money in Syria or Iraq.”

But many other Iranians, while critical of corruption, are not willing to break with the Rouhani government. Tens of thousands of people participated in pro-government marches on December 5 as hardliners blamed the United States and foreign powers for the unrest.

Back in the United States, President Donald Trump has sought to use the protests to justify his aggressive policies.

He tweeted, “Such respect for the people of Iran as they try to take back their corrupt government. You will see great support from the United States at the appropriate time!”

But Iranians don’t believe Trump supports them. In my numerous, random interviews, I did not encounter a single person with anything positive to say about Trump. They opposed his ban on Iranian travel to the United States, his declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and his efforts to cancel the nuclear accord.

“Iranians are angry at Trump’s policies,” veteran journalist Mohammad Reza Noroozpour told me.

Iranians worry that Trump will use the anti-government protests as an excuse to abrogate the nuclear agreement.

In 2015, the United States, Iran, and five other countries signed an internationally binding agreement, ratified by the U.N. Security Council. Iran agreed not to develop nuclear weapons. In return, the United States and European countries were supposed to lift harsh economic sanctions.

Iran has lived up to its end of the bargain. It poured concrete into a major nuclear reactor, shipped enriched uranium out of the country, severely reduced the number of centrifuges used to enrich uranium, and allowed intrusive inspections at all its nuclear facilities. The International Atomic Energy Agency has verified that Iran has no nuclear weapons program.

Nevertheless, last October Trump decertified the agreement, a unilateral move rejected by all the other signatories: Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China. Trump is seriously considering re-imposing sanctions, using the Iran protests as an excuse.

So what is Iran going to do? Iranian officials are considering options ranging from stepped-up diplomacy to military confrontation, according to Iranian foreign policy experts and high government officials in Iran.

“When Trump became President, I think this was a big shock for the Rouhani administration,” Foad Izadi told me. Izadi is an assistant professor at the North American Studies Department at the University of Tehran. Rouhani’s supporters hope Trump will “be impeached before he can cause more damage. And if that doesn’t happen, they are hoping that Trump’s advisers will tell him that agreement is actually good for the United States.”

Rouhani, a political centrist, wants to see less confrontation with the West and greater foreign investments. His camp advocates robust diplomatic efforts against Trump, trying to take advantage of fractures within the US administration. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has taken a softer line, arguing the administration must insure that Iran lives up to the agreement. The heads of intelligence agencies and the former generals now populating the White House, on the other hand, advocate a hard line against Iran.

“The reformists don’t want to provoke the US,” said Noroozpour, and hope pressure from European allies will restrain Trump.

By contrast, the conservative camp, known in Iran as principlists, advocate a series of escalating actions that would not violate the nuclear accord but would nonetheless send a message to Washington.

The principlists “emphasize a new alliance with Russia and Turkey,” Noroozpour explained. “Principlists believe this alliance can force the US to get out of the Middle East.”

The principlists insist that Iran can reinstitute its nuclear engineering and science programs at universities, which have languished over the past few years. Also, under International Atomic Energy Agency rules, Iran can enrich uranium up to 20 percent for medical research. Iran could enrich uranium to even higher levels as part of plans to develop nuclear powered submarines. But Iran currently has no nuclear subs.

Professor Izadi told me that, as a sign of even stronger resistance, some principlists want Iran to withdraw from the decades-old Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which Iran ratified back in the 1960s. Conservatives argue that the treaty allows western spies to enter sensitive Iranians military bases under the guise of snap inspections.

These principlists say, according to Izadi, “The benefits of NPT have not materialized for Iran.”

In my opinion, if Iran formally withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, US hardliners would immediately claim Iran was rushing to make a bomb, leading to the further escalation of tensions and possible confrontation. North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 as the first step in developing its nuclear weapons.

But that doesn’t worry some principlists, according to a high-ranking government official who asked to remain anonymous. “Some principlists now advocate confrontation with the US,” he said. Iran wouldn’t directly attack the United States, but would utilize allies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen.

“We can bother the US around the world,” he said confidently. “We have nothing to lose. The negotiations were important for our national dignity. We will not be humiliated.”

Ironically, the hardliners in the United States and Iran play into one another’s hands. Trump and has cronies seek to use the popular protests in Iran as justification for more attacks. The hardliners in Iran want to blame the protests on foreign powers in order to justify more confrontation with the United States.

Let us hope saner voices prevail on both sides.