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Iran: In from the Cold?

30 September 2013

Iran: In from the Cold?

By Gwynne Dyer

When Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, came home from the United Nations General Assembly meeting last Friday, demonstrators at Tehran airport threw eggs, shoes and stones. They had heard about his 15-minute phone conversation with US President Barack Obama, and they were not pleased.

But there were many more Rouhani supporters at the airport, who clearly hoped that he will make a deal with the United States on Iran’s nuclear programme and end the sanctions that are strangling the Iranian economy. “I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution,” Rouhani’s office tweeted after the famous phone call to Obama, and most Iranians want to believe him.

Most people elsewhere want to believe him too. We have had ten years of escalating threats by Israel and the US to attack Iran if it doesn’t stop enriching uranium for its civil nuclear power programme, on the grounds that this is merely a cover for a nuclear weapons programme. And everybody understands that this could end up as a big, ugly war.

That’s why Obama took the political risk of becoming the first US president in 34 years to talk to an Iranian leader. When he addressed the General Assembly in New York, he welcomed the “more moderate course” taken by President Rouhani, who took office in August. “The roadblocks may prove to be too great,” Obama said, “but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.”

Then the chief roadblock arrived: Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He was flying to New York to “tell the truth in the face of the sweet talk and the blitz of smiles,” he said – and when he mounted the podium at the General Assembly, he bluntly accused the new Iranian president of being “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Nobody, not even the Israeli intelligence services, accuses Iran of working on nuclear weapons right now. The US Central Intelligence Agency flatly says that it is not. The accusation, by Israel, its Western supporters, and some of Iran’s Arab neighbours, is that Tehran is building a (quite legal) uranium enrichment capability IN ORDER TO BE ABLE TO MAKE ACTUAL NUCLEAR WEAPONS AT SOME FUTURE TIME.

Iran denies any such intention, of course. “We say explicitly that we will be transparent; we say explicitly that we will not build a bomb,” said Rouhani in New York. “No nation should possess nuclear weapons, since there are no right hands for these wrong weapons.”

That last was a subtle slap at the hypocrisy of the United States and Israel, which have thousands and hundreds of nuclear weapons respectively, for threatening to attack another country because it is allegedly planning to build them in the future. But Rouhani is not demanding that Israel give up its nuclear weapons and sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. On the contrary, he implicitly accepts the status quo.

So why doesn’t Netanyahu welcome the possibility that Iran now seems willing to negotiate a deal that would leave it free to make its own enriched nuclear fuel for reactors, but stop it from making highly enriched uranium suitable for weapons? By all means insist that any US-Iranian deal be enforceable and free of loopholes, but why say things like “Rouhani thinks he can have his yellowcake (enriched uranium) and eat it too”?

The ten-year confrontation over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons ambitions has served Netanyahu well. It has distracted the world’s attention from the plight of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. It has also given him enormous leverage in Washington: much US policy in the Middle East is driven by the perceived need to keep Israel from launching a unilateral attack on Iran, which would be a catastrophe for American interests in the region.

But if Netanyahu truly believes that Iranian nuclear weapons would be an existential threat to Israel, why would he oppose negotiations that might put an end to that possibility? Exactly what would be lost by giving peace a chance?

What would be lost, if a lasting deal emerged from the negotiations being mooted between Tehran and Washington, is the ability of successive right-wing Israeli governments to extort unconditional American military support for Israel, no matter what it does, precisely because it allegedly faces an existential threat from Iran.

Since the Russian-sponsored deal over Syria’s chemical weapons has similarly sidelined the prospect of an American attack on Syria (which Israel sees as its second most dangerous enemy), the foreign policy that has sustained Netanyahu for almost two decades is collapsing.

Without a plausible military threat to Israel – and where else could it come from, if not Iran or Syria? – his ability to bully successive American administrations into ignoring Israel’s illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land, its clandestine nuclear and chemical weapons, and much else besides, would slowly drain away. So Netanyahu will do everything he can to strangle the newborn possibility of an American-Iranian rapprochement in its cradle.

As the scenes at Tehran airport demonstrate, Rouhani also faces strong opposition at home from those whose political instincts or interests demand a continuation of the Iran-against-the-world confrontation that has already lasted for a generation. Rouhani’s initiative has created a great deal of hope, but its enemies are already working to kill it.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 8 and 11. (“Iran…quo”; and “But…chance”)

The Millennium Goals

14 September 2010

The Millennium Goals

By Gwynne Dyer

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.” It may have been Ella Fitzgerald who first said that, or maybe it was Sophie Tucker. Doesn’t matter. It’s true, other things being equal – but “other things” are not equal.

On 20-22 September, while the United Nations General Assembly is holding its annual meeting in New York, most of the world’s leaders will come together to review progress on the “Millennium Development Goals” that the UN adopted ten years ago. All the anti-poverty campaigners will claim that change has been too little and too slow, but actually it hasn’t been bad at all.

Measured against the real state of the poorest countries in the late 20th century and not against some impossible dream of a perfect world, there have been major improvements in key areas like literacy, access to clean water and infant mortality. A great deal of the progress has been due to the efforts of the poor countries themselves, but there have been big changes in the behaviour of the rich countries too.

Back in the 60s, 70s and 80s, most aid to developing countries was driven by the competition for global influence in the Cold War – so when that confrontation suddenly ended in 1989-90, the rich countries’ main motive for giving aid vanished. The 90s were a miserable time when the flow of aid virtually dried up, and the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) of 2000 were an attempt to re-focus global attention on the needs of the poor.

To a surprising extent, it worked. Aid flows have recovered, much poor-country debt has been forgiven, and there have been startling success stories like Tanzania, where the literacy rate has jumped from 52 percent to 98 percent since 1991.

Even more important than the aid was the fact that the great powers stopped backing rulers in the developing countries who oppressed and stole from their own people. Once those thugs had been important, because they kept their countries on the right side in the Cold War. Afterwards, the West didn’t care whether they survived or not – and many of them didn’t.

Better leadership and cleaner politics account for much of the improvement, especially in parts of Africa. Ghana, for example, has cut the rate of child malnutrition in half since 1990. Some MDG targets, like halving the number of people in the world without access to clean water by 2015, would be met even without the “High-Level Plenary Meeting” in New York this month that is intended to re-energise the process.

The greatest decline in poverty has been in China and India, home to over half of the very poor people in the world, where high economic growth rates rather than foreign aid have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. Hundreds of millions of others have been left behind, of course, but the glass is definitely half full, not half empty.

If the story ended there, it would be an uplifting tale. For thousands of years most people everywhere lived in dire poverty and ignorance. Then one group, the Europeans, discovered technologies and ways of doing things that made them unimaginably rich and powerful. They behaved very badly for a while, conquering everybody else in the world, but that is now over, and we can all look forward to a future of prosperity AND equality.

It sounds naive when you put it so baldly, but that is really the notion that lies behind things like the Millenium goals. It is certainly not an ignoble ambition, and ten years ago it seemed almost attainable. Today it seems much less so.

The problem is not the current economic slump. That is cutting into living standards in many places, but even if it lasts for years it is essentially a transient event. The real worm of doubt is the gradual realisation that seven billion human beings cannot all live the current lifestyle of the billion richest without causing an environmental and ecological catastrophe. It is inherently unsustainable.

Clean water, literacy and healthy children do no harm by themselves, but that is just a way-station on the path to a full “developed” style of life. We do not really imagine that the billions of poor should or will accept a permanent existence as healthier, more literate peasants who still live lightly upon the earth. They will demand the whole package, and it will be the ruination of us all.

Even one billion people consuming resources and producing pollution at the current rate may be unsustainable over a period of more than a generation or two. Seven or eight billion people living like that would be unsustainable even over a couple of decades: global warming and resource depletion would swiftly overwhelm our emerging global civilisation and its high aspirations.

Yet that is the road we have put ourselves on, because maintaining the gulf between the relatively few rich and the many poor is morally offensive and politically impossible. Rich really is better than poor, in the sense that people who are physically secure and have some freedom of choice in their lives are generally happier people. But we have to do a serious re-think about how we define the concept of rich.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7 (“Even…process”).

Anarchy in the Streets

April 13, 2003

Anarchy in the Streets

By Gwynne Dyer

Watching Iraq’s cities dissolve into anarchy, many people wondered why the American and British soldiers didn’t intervene to stop the looting and revenge-taking. Some assumed that this is what always happens when dictatorships fall. Others, however, were struck by how thin the civilised veneer of law and order really is.

The foreign troops didn’t act because they were trained for combat, not for police work. They don’t speak Arabic, and if they intervened on a large scale they would end up killing too many civilians. But this is NOT what automatically happens when dictatorships end.

There were no scenes like this in Manila after the overthrow of the dictator Marcos in 1986, or in East Germany after the Berlin Wall came down, or in Moscow when the Soviet regime collapsed, or in Belgrade after the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic three years ago. But those were all non-violent democratic revolutions coming from within, whereas this is a foreign invasion that drove all the police off the streets.

The police are the heart of the matter, and the phenomenon has nothing to do with Iraq being an Arab country or a recent ex-dictatorship. No city is more than 48 hours away from violent anarchy. Consider two films that are making the rounds at the moment.

One is Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Gangs of New York’, a vivid and meticulous recreation of the terrifying slum called the Five Points (where Foley Square is now) from the 1840s to the 1860s. The other is Fernando Meirelles’s ‘Cidade de Deus’ (City of God), a jittery, hand-held pseudo-documentary chronicling gang life and death in Rio de Janeiro’s teeming, ultra-violent Zona Norte from the 1970s to the 1990s. The two films could not be more different in style — but they are essentially the same film.

The arc of the stories is identical: twenty years in the life of the gangs, as youthful apprentices murder their way up the local power structure, enjoy their moment of glory, and are eventually deposed by the next lot of ruthless juvenile killers. What’s curious, given that New York and Rio de Janeiro are cities of about the same age, is that the stories are set more than a hundred years apart. Rio didn’t have gangs like that a hundred years ago, and New York City has not had them since. How come?

There were certainly criminals operating in Rio in the 19th century, and there are lots of organised criminal groups still operating in New York today. But what you didn’t have in Rio then, and haven’t had in New York for over a century, are large gangs of violent criminals, drawn from the poorest class, who openly control whole neighbourhoods, wage pitched battles against each other, and sortie out into the wealthier parts of the city to rob, terrorise, pillage and kill.

So what causes them? If you only watched ‘Cidade de Deus’ you might say it was drugs, for that is the main source of income for the gangs of Rio and the main cause for wars between them. But there was no drug trade of the same kind in New York in the 1840s, and the gangs thrived anyway.

Poverty, then? You need a critical mass of desperately poor people to get gangs of this sort, certainly, but why do we not see the same phenomenon in Mexico City, Cairo and Delhi, cities that have millions of desperately poor people? There is plenty of crime in those cities, but nothing to compare with brazen, lethal gangs of 1840s New York and present-day Rio.

The real answer is in the films themselves. A dominant theme in both ‘Gangs of New York’ and ‘City of God’ is the corruption of the police, who are in league with the gang bosses. The entire structure of city government, police force and gangs is one vast criminal conspiracy, and everybody thrives except the public. The key is the police: so long as they have a basic commitment to the preservation of law and order, anarchy and gang rule can be avoided. If they lack that commitment, or simply are not present on the streets, all hell breaks loose.

It’s not that everybody is a potential criminal waiting for a chance to break loose, but such people do exist everywhere. In small societies, the discipline that keeps them under control comes from social pressure, backed by direct action when necessary. In societies so big that most people are strangers to one another, social discipline has to be backed up by a police force. It’s as true for Boston and Bombay as it is for Baghdad: if the police stop doing their job, it’s a matter of hours before the wicked and the desperate seize their opportunity. Anarchy is never that far away.

The chaos in Iraqi cities will subside in coming days as the occupying powers get the local police force back on the streets. Most of the looting could not have been prevented — but a curse upon the commander who ignored the pleas of archaeologists from all over the world and failed to guard the National Museum of Iraq from the looters. For the want of a dozen soldiers, tens of thousands of irreplaceable artefacts from the earliest human civilisations have been lost. In the broadest sense, that officer is guilty of a crime against all humanity.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“So what…Rio”)

The Great Crash

24 September 1979

The Great Crash

By Gwynne Dyer

LONDON: The ideal capitalist enterprise, it was once suggested, would be a brothel over a five- minute carwash. But all the best ways of making one’s capital multiply involve the owner no work at — like the stock market. What goes up must come down, however, and 50 years ago next month Welt Street came down with a crash that still reverberates in Western memory.

The Crash of 1929 inaugurated the grim decade of the Great Depression. In the United States, one quarter of the population was out of work by 1932. The gross National Product of the U.S. dropped by a third in four years, and it did not recover to its 1929 dollar value until 1941.

Much the same happened in Europe, although rearmament – and so recovery – came earlier. Nor was what we now call the Third World spared: Most of the world lost a full decade of economic growth.

Most historians also blame the Great Depression for Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and for Japan’s desperate grab for an economically self-sufficient empire in East Asia. On that reckoning, the Crash of 1929 also led eventually to the Second World War, – and so to the end of the European empires, the Soviet conquest of half of Europe and the Communist victory in China.

Somehow it all seems much too large a result from the mere fact that the average value of industrial shares on the New York Stock Exchange declined by half between mid-September and mid-November of 1929.

That is why the popular memory has embroidered and dramatized the events of late 1929. ‘Everyone’ in America was caught up in the speculative fever, we are told, and everyone lost their shirts when the crash came. The crash was supposed to have happened on a single day – most often called ‘Black Friday,’ October 24th – by the end of which ruined speculators were raining onto the sidewalks of New York in formation suicide leaps.

The facts, as usual, are rather different. The total number of customers on all American stock exchanges in 1929 was only 1.5 million in a United States population which was then 120 mIllion. The panic of ‘Black Friday’ was over by the afternoon, and the market closed for the day only 12 points down. The suicide rate in New York in the autumn months of 1929 was no higher than normal.

And yet the slow-motion Crash of 1929, beginning with a slight downward movement in stock values September 5 and accelerating into a sickening slide in late October, really did cause the Great Depression. The reason was that it came at the end of one of those mercifully rare bouts of specutative lunacy which leave hang-overs of historic proportions.

The major economic advantage of the capitalist system – renamed free enterprise for propaganda reasons during the Cold. War – over the various models of centrally planned economies is its greater flexibility. But the flexibility comes from tens and hundreds of thousands of companies and individuals making independent decisions, which naturally also means unpredictability.

And unpredictability inevitably brings speculation. Each individual’s business decisions depend on his estimate of what all the other individuals, and so the economy as a whole, will decideto do. The business cycle is basically a product of collective psychology, and the stock market is its most sensitive barometer.

Normally the collective expectations of economic growth or recession move within quite narrow and rational limits, and so does the stock market. But once in a great while people will be seized by the belief that the expansion of the economy (or more precisely, the rise in the stock market prices) will be rapid, continuous and unlimited., In fact, only the most naive believe this literally. Insiders know that the rise in stock values must end some time, and plan to, sell out just before that moment. But since the whole momentum of the expansion is psychological, they must not give any hint by word or deed that they think this will ever happen for fear of breaking the spell and precipitating the collapse.

When such a speculative fever hits the market (for reasons that would be best understood by lemmings), speculators will buy any stock, at any price – usually with a great deal of borrowed money (on margin) – in the belief that they will be able to sell it again in a few weeks or months at a far higher price. The true worth of a particular stock, or even what kind of enterprise it represents, entirely ceases to matter.

Just before the first great crash of modern history, the South Sea Bubble of 1720, speculators willingly poured their money into, amongst other curiosities, a promotion ‘For an Undettaking which shall in due Time be revealed.’ The same get-rich quick psychology had taken over in1929, with expectations of infinite rises in stock prices. When the collapse came, as it eventually had to, the disillusionment was correspondingly deep and long lasting.

The higher you rise, the farther you fall. By November 13, 1929, the prices of industrial stocks had fallen by half. There followed a brief recovery, but the decline then continued relentlessly until June, 1932, by which time the prices were on average only one-eighth of their value three years before. And it was the psychological hang-over of the Crash – the ever more deeply entrenched belief that things would go on getting worse – that made the Great Depression so deep and so long.

Could it ever happen again? The human capacity to suspend disbelief under the goad of greed has certainly not diminished, as witness the ever green schemes for chain letters and pyramid selling. Stock markets are more closely regulated nowadays but that did not prevent utterly implausible but hugely successful promotions like Bernie Cornfeld s Investors Overseas Services (Do you sincerely want to be rich? ) in the late 1960s.

The, main deterrent to another round of lunatic speculation like that before the Great Crash of 1929 is the memory of that event. In the present pessimistic economic climate it could not possibly happen. But some day the economic prospects may seem rosy again, and memory fades.

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Appreciation to Ronald Knowling, Assistant Manager – Central Division

Provincial Information and Library Resources Board Gander, NL for the submission of archived article by Gwynne Dyer.