How Despots Interpret Deals with the West
by Bassam Tawil . Gatestone Institute, September 6, 2019
US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was quoted as saying on August 28 that the US is "not seeking conflict with Iran." During the Pentagon press briefing, Esper repeated Trump's calls for diplomatic efforts with Iran. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
The European Union says it will support talks between the US and Iran, but only if the current nuclear deal with Tehran is preserved.
The idea of direct talks between the US and Iran seems to have developed after President Donald Trump recently said he was ready to meet Iran's President Hassan Rouhani.
"We are always in favor of talks, the more people talk, the more people understand each other better, on the basis of clarity and on the basis of respect," EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini said last month.
The EU wants the world to welcome Iran back into the international community because -- this might sound harsh, but it is increasingly hard not to believe it -- they are hoping that the leaders of Tehran will focus their efforts on achieving their goal of annihilating Israel. As far as the Europeans are concerned, it appears that the stronger Iran is, the better: a renewed Iran would further Europe's hope of seeing Israel and the Jews wiped off the face of the earth . Heard just a few months ago were calls such as, "send Jews to the ovens," "Hitler didn't finish the job," and "kill the Jews."
US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was quoted as saying on August 28 that the US is "not seeking conflict with Iran." During the Pentagon press briefing, Esper repeated Trump's calls for diplomatic efforts with Iran. "You saw over the weekend some reporting. The president once again said that he's more than willing to meet with Iran's leaders to resolve this... diplomatically."
The Trump administration's gestures towards Iran, however, do not appear to have impressed the leaders of the Islamic Republic. In fact, Arabs and Muslims have a habit of misinterpreting gestures from Westerners as a sign of weakness and retreat. In addition, such gestures have historically whetted the appetite of Arabs and Muslims, leading to demands for yet more concessions.
The Trump administration has created the impression in the Arab and Muslim world that it is ready to beg the leaders of Iran to engage in direct negotiations with Washington. This approach is exceptionally harmful to US interests: it sends a message to many Arabs and Muslims that Americans are prepared to surrender again and humiliate themselves for the sake of any kind of deal with the Iranians. As Iran's President Hassan Rouhani said last month, America should "bow down" to Iran. Seems it is.
In the eyes of many Arabs and Muslims, the US now appears to be courting the Iranian regime despite Tehran's increased support for terrorism, particularly in the Middle East. These Arabs and Muslims are even convinced that it is only a matter of time before the Trump administration comes knocking on Iran's door, begging for a meeting between Trump and Rouhani.
The Iranians are already making it appear as if they are the ones who need to consider whether or not to meet with the Trump administration. This policy is designed to send the following message to Arabs and Muslims: "See how these pathetic Westerners have come to us, begging? See how they have zero self-respect?"
Echoing this approach, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said last month:
"It won't be possible for us to engage with US unless they stop imposing a war, engaging in economic terrorism... If they want to come back to the [negotiating] room, there is a ticket, and that ticket is to observe the agreement."
Zarif is saying, in other words, that Iran has its own pre-conditions for talking with the Trump administration. Statements like these are aimed at making Iran appear to Arabs and Muslims as a country that can afford openly to challenge -- and even degrade -- the US.
For now, the Iranians appear as if they have the upper hand and final say in the crisis with the US. This bearing further emboldens Tehran's leaders and proxies throughout the Middle East, especially Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and the Houthi Shia militias in Yemen.
The Trump administration, rather than avoiding the telephone calls of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would do well to learn from Israel's experience when it comes to offering gestures and making territorial and political concessions: that striking deals with Arab and Islamic regimes and organizations, such as Iran and the Palestinian Authority -- as well as the Taliban, China, North Korea and Russia, which all seem to think that honoring agreements is for other people -- tends to come with a heavy price.
In 1993, Israel signed the Oslo Accord with the PLO -- a move that allowed then PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and thousands of his "fighters" to move from Tunis to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Israelis were hoping back then that the Oslo Accords would lead to real peace and coexistence, with the Palestinians living under PLO rule. The Oslo Accords, nonetheless, have since proven to be a disaster for both Israelis and Palestinians. Why? As it later transpired, Arafat and the PLO never had any intention of implementing the agreements. Arafat, in fact, spoke of the Oslo Accord as a modern version of Mohammad's Treaty of Hudaibiyyah, in which the prophet had promised not to attack a Jewish tribe for ten years, but instead came back in two years and wiped it out.
PLO official Faisal Husseini on two separate occasions in 2001 described Oslo as a "Trojan Horse" – presumably first to open Israel to Palestinian demands and then to destroy it.
In 2006, Palestinian journalist Abdel Al-Bari Atwan revealed in a television interview that Arafat had told him that he was planning to turn the Oslo Accords into a curse for Israel.
"When the Oslo Accords were signed, I went to visit [Arafat] in Tunis. It was around July, before he went to Gaza. I said to him: We disagree. I do not support this agreement. It will harm us, the Palestinians, distort our image, and uproot us from our Arab origins. This agreement will not get us what we want, because these Israelis are deceitful.
"He [Arafat] took me outside and told me: By Allah, I will drive them [the Jews] crazy. By Allah, I will turn this agreement into a curse for them. By Allah, perhaps not in my lifetime, but you will live to see the Israelis flee from Palestine. Have a little patience. I entrust this with you. Don't mention this to anyone."
When Arafat and the PLO realized at the 2000 Camp David summit that their plan had been uncovered, they launched a massive wave of terrorism, called "the Second Intifada," against Israel. At that meeting, Arafat received the most generous offer to date from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak -- but the Palestinian leader still said "no."
Barak's proposal , according to various sources, included the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state on approximately 92% of the West Bank and 100% of the Gaza Strip, with some territorial compensation for the Palestinians from land inside Israel; the dismantling of most of the settlements; and the establishment of the future Palestinian capital in large parts of east Jerusalem. (An offer in 2008 from then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, even more far-reaching, was rejected by the Palestinians without even a counter-offer .)
Israel had believed what the PLO and Yasser Arafat said, and ended up facing an unprecedented campaign of suicide bombings and different forms of terrorism that have claimed the lives of thousands of Israelis in the past 27 years.
In 2005, Israel again paid a heavy price for a move that was supposed to promote peace and stability in the Middle East: the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Then, Israel withdrew to the 1949 armistice line bordering the Gaza Strip after evacuating more than 8,000 Jews from their homes in the Gaza Strip settlements. Israel's gesture, however, was misinterpreted by many Palestinians as a sign of weakness and retreat. The way most Palestinians saw it was: "Wow, we have killed 1,000 Jews in four and a half years -- and now the Jews run! What we need to do is step up our terrorism: today they are evacuating the Gaza Strip, tomorrow they will evacuate the cities of Ashkelon, then Ashdod, then Tel Aviv ... and from there to the sea."
So, the Palestinians continued to fire rockets from the Gaza Strip at Israel even after the Israeli pullout. They had evidently concluded that spilling more Jewish blood would force the Jews to make even greater concessions and lead eventually lead to the elimination of Israel.
Similarly, Israel has repeatedly paid a heavy price for other gestures, such as releasing convicted terrorists from prison or removing checkpoints. Virtually each time, the Palestinian response was mounting more terrorism and killing more Jews. Many Palestinians who were released by Israel in the past few decades have returned to terrorist activity. They clearly saw their release from prison as a sign of weakness, and not as a gesture of goodwill on the part of Israel. Their conclusion was: to get Israel to release more prisoners, kill more Jews.
Most of all, the Trump administration would be wise to learn from Israel's bitter experience in dealing with Iran's Palestinian proxies: Hamas and Islamic Jihad. How many ceasefire agreements has Israel reached with the Gaza-based terrorist groups in the past 15 years? Probably at least ten. What has happened since then? Most of the agreements were violated by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, sometimes within hours, days or weeks.
Israel has learned the hard way that agreements with terrorists and dictators (such as Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas) are not worth the paper they are written on -- and usually simply serve to invite further violence.
The Trump administration, in its overtures towards the Iranian regime -- and China, North Korea, Russia and the Taliban -- could well be facing the same scenario. Advice to the Trump administration is: Stay strong. As Osama bin Laden correctly observed , "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse."
Strength and more strength is the only way to earn the respect of those running the show in Beijing, Kabul, Moscow, Pyongyang, and especially Tehran, Gaza and Beirut.
Bassam Tawil is a Muslim Arab based in the Middle East.