Image source: Corbis

Iran has been a focus of global attention for many years, and once again it ranks at or near the top of diplomatic agendas. After more than a year of uncertainty and procrastination, America has finally decided to renege on the nuclear deal that has so far kept Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It’s an important and troubling issue, and I have already discussed it in 2 older articles. But let’s step aside from the fixation with nukes for a bit and discuss something more fundamental: the ongoing contradiction between Iran’s government and society. It underlies a great deal of Iranian policy (and foreign policy toward Iran), even when it’s not immediately apparent.

As usual, a bit of historical background is necessary. Iran (Persia) is an ancient land with a coherent national identity and culture dating back to the 500s BCE. For most of that time, it was ruled by an emperor (or “shah”) with few limits on his power. Although Iran was modernized in the early 1900s by Reza Shah Pahlavi, the shah’s power was still pretty much absolute. A constitutional movement at the beginning of the century gave the country a legislature, the Majlis, but it was subordinated to the shah.

This continued under Reza Shah’s son, Mohammad Reza Shah (who is almost invariably referred to as just “the shah”). He offered very generous terms to foreign investors and suppressed opposition parties, enforcing his rule with a sinister secret police force, SAVAK. By 1978, a cycle had developed of anti-monarchist protests that were put down violently, thereby provoking even bigger protests, and so on. With even the legal political parties turning against him and military units switching sides, the shah’s power was untenable, and in early 1979 he left Iran for medical care, never to return.

This pattern of events is not unusual in revolutions, but what happened next in Iran is unique. Without the shah, politics in Iran dissolved into a messy struggle between factions with wildly different visions of Iran’s future (much like what happened in the Arab world in 2011) — and the Islamic Republican Party had the most public support. It wiped out its opponents and created a theocracy, or rule by religion. Muslims in many countries pine for a strong(er) role for their religion in government; in Iran the religious establishment actually took over.

In a system called vilayat-e faqih (“rule by jurist”), a Supreme Leader replaced the shah as the head of Iran’s government. This Supreme Leader was originally Ruhollah Khomeini, an ayatollah (a high-ranking cleric within Iran’s Shi’ite sect of Islam); he has since been replaced by Ali Khamenei (not the same guy). Khomeini attained the position mostly by his charisma and fame and legitimized it by his knowledge of Muslim law and jurisprudence. The Supreme Leader has the final say in government policy, oversees judicial and military appointments, and interprets the constitution. Beneath him is the president, who is elected every four years by the people — the catch is that candidates must first be vetted by the Supreme Leader and Council of Guardians, which is entirely made up of clerics. The Majlis persists, and like the president its members are also popularly elected; also like the president, they are vetted by the Council. There is a Supreme Court and a Special Clerical Court (the latter of which watches the watchmen), and they are also composed entirely of mullahs.

دیدار رئیس‌جمهور و اعضای هیأت دولت

Iran’s government. Khamenei is in the middle, beneath a portrait of Khomeini, with Rouhani to his left. Image source: Financial Tribune

There are also the Revolutionary Guards. This corps was created during the revolution to “protect” (enforce) it by rooting out monarchist or secularist elements and jailing them. They are the regime’s enforcers and spy and crack down on protests or political dissent, not unlike their monarchist predecessors. Since students in particular are trouble, they are regularly hounded by the Basij, one of the Guards’ arms; another arm, the Quds Force, intervenes in wars in West Asia (Syria, Iraq, Yemen) to coordinate militias and advance Iranian foreign policy there. Analysts debate whether the Guards are controlled by the president or the Supreme Leader; in reality, they probably compose their own power center, and even if they enforce Islamic law, they act more like the paramilitary they are. They are definitely the single biggest economic force in Iran today after a major expansion under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-13), and own powerful companies in the oil, telecoms, car and construction sectors.

Iran has a rich stew of political parties, but politics there normally fragments into two factions. The “reformists” want Iran to lighten up: lift government controls of the economy, trim clerical control of the government, court foreigners more, and allow more freedom of expression. The “hardliners,” well, want the opposite. They defend the status quo and the spirit of the Iranian Revolution and rail against reform as backtracking and dangerous. They taunt reformers as gharbzadegi (corrupted by the West) and either call for continued focus on Shi’ite principles and austere piety or defend government domination of the economy as necessary for protecting the Iranian people, depending on their background and emphasis.

That being said, Iranian politics can be bewildering and complex, and it gives foreign analysts much to do to track the shifting fortunes and positions of its main figures. Ahmadinejad, for instance, was a bit of a rogue who challenged the elite and promoted populist economic policies while championing Islam, demonizing Israel and the West, and alienating the young. He was ultimately distrusted by the Supreme Leader and Council for being a wild card who relied too much on the Guards, but during the “Green Movement” of 2009, when protesters railed against his reelection, Khamenei sided with him and squelched the movement, reasoning that he was the lesser of two evils. Khamenei has given his presidents substantial latitude, especially compared to Khomeini, but he is as hardline as they come and is not above making subtle digs at them in sermons to keep them nervous and in line. President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani (1989-97) was somewhere in the middle, trying to open up Iranian society after Khomeini’s harsh austerity but without betraying the revolution; as usual for moderates, this just meant that both sides ended up angry with him.

In general, though, the central dynamic in Iranian politics is that the ayatollah is hardline and the president (including the current one, Hassan Rouhani) is reformist. This is no accident, since the president is popularly elected.

The Iranian Revolution was a grassroots movement. Tired of being oppressed, tortured and patronized for as long as anyone could remember, Iran’s masses poured into the streets in 1979 to demand change and a government ruled by mullahs. The ’80s were years of religious zeal in Iran, as women were forced to cover up and everyone was forced to abandon overt signs of Western influence.

But Iran hasn’t historically been a closed, suspicious society. Sitting astride the old trade routes between Europe and China known as the Silk Road, it absorbed foreign influences and the people who brought them while influencing outsiders too (see this article for some of the ways it influenced South Asia, for example). It is widely acknowledged as an extremely hospitable and generous country with a tradition of respecting guests. In the decades before the revolution, Western influences were widespread and tacitly encouraged by the shah — Western fashions in dress and hair, Western literature, European languages, and Western pastimes were trendy and tolerated by most Iranians.

This trend away from revolutionary fervor has been accelerated by demographics. The 2011 census revealed that 56% of the country is under 30. The 20-30 age cohort is easily the biggest (23% of the population). Most people do not remember the revolution and do not hold Khomeini in great reverence. Due in part to weariness at Islam’s relentless intolerance and conservatism (or at least, those of its followers), the young are increasingly turning away from the faith; details are murky, but there seems to be a thriving underground Christian community. While Iran’s great religious centers like Mashhad and Qom still attract crowds during holidays and pilgrimages (as do Iraq’s Shi’ite holy cities, Najaf and Karbala), many mosques are relatively empty during weekly services. Even many clerics only go through the motions, and there are plenty who are blatantly hypocritical in their own observance of Islamic law.

As a result, it is fair to say that contemporary Iranian society is fairly open and secular. As in many other Muslim countries, alcohol is freely sold and consumed despite Islam’s ban on it; a lot of people even struggle with alcoholism, catching the government off guard with how to cope with it. Teens feast on pizza, visit bowling alleys, and show off their skateboard tricks and souped-up cars. Strict censorship of un-Islamic entertainment is usually flouted; satellite dishes dot urban rooftops, and hit American movies and TV shows are downloaded off the Internet. Social codes are clearly sexist, but women have more freedom of action than in most Arab or African countries, outnumber men in universities, and mingle freely with men in public. Islam’s strict dress codes are followed, but with as much leeway as possible — women wear tight-fitting clothes, makeup, and hijab with their hair showing. Some have even taken the daring step of not wearing hijab altogether, which is liable to get you arrested.

The Basij take a nuanced approach to this. Accepting reality, for the most part they let the people do as they want, especially if they are rich or well-connected. But stepping too far will still land you in jail, and Iranians are skilled at knowing where the red lines are. Political debate is tolerated — presidential candidates hold debates around election time — but if the core precepts of Islam, the revolution or the government are challenged, authorities swoop in. Travelers are nominally welcome in Iran and are certainly greeted with open arms by ordinary people, but they are still liable to be watched, detained and questioned by the police. Journalists and unfortunate souls like hikers who stray across the Iraqi border or scholars studying the Qajar dynasty are jailed without cause or on trumped-up charges. Listening to foreign music is O.K., but uploading a video of a dance to Pharrell Williams is going too far.

In general, Iranians are used to this and take it as a fact of life or a quirk of their country. But it grates on them just the same. Being treated as a rogue state or part of George Bush’s “Axis of Evil” is frustrating, and most Iranians want more freedom. That is why they continually elect reformist presidents, from Mohammad Khatami in 1997 to Rouhani in 2013. That is why the reelection of Ahmadinejad in 2009 sparked a massive uprising in Tehran in support of his reformist opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, that was ultimately put down violently. That is why more protests burst out around (Western) New Year’s 2018, which originated from economic grievances (mainly high food prices) but soon escalated into demonstrations against the regime in general, and in cities across the country.

How will these contradictions and internal tensions be resolved? As in many things in Iran, it is unclear. Some analysts argue that the violent suppression of protests and continued sidelining of reformists will continue and ultimately reveal Iran’s democratic process for what it really is: a facade for military dictatorship with religious overtones. Others are more optimistic and see Iran’s government as a spent force, with the youth representing the new vanguard that will someday produce an Iran less hostile to its neighbors and more tolerant of social expression.  Given Iran’s ongoing relevance on the international stage as it bids for regional domination, outside interference and influence is another complicating factor. But it is unfair and overly simplistic to see Iran as simply another grouchy, zealous Islamic dictatorship determined to slaughter infidels and torture its people. There are a variety of political, economic and social opinions circulating in Iran, and although there are significant restrictions, Khamenei and his Guards let them circulate.


There are plenty of good books on Iran, but it’s hard to imagine any of them besting Marjane Satrapi’s comic memoir of growing up in the Iranian Revolution, Persepolis. (The animated version is masterful too.) Image source: Pinterest



Old City from the Mount of the Olives

Jerusalem, with Zion (the historic core) in the foreground. Image source: My Jewish Learning

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the fall of Jerusalem to Israeli forces. It was the climax of the 6-Day War and 1 of the pivotal events in West Asian history — for Israelis, the moment when Jews could once again enter their holy city, and for Arabs, the beginning of a long period of occupation and bitterness.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is the world’s most intractable and ferocious. No other topic incites such animosity and flame wars, online or in the real world. It has almost become a symbol of ethnic hatred, religious fervor and complicated international crises. Why is it so intractable, and what can be done to get past it?

Like pretty much any long-running conflict, the Arab-Israeli conflict has a long history. In this case, though, it’s an especially long history, and that in itself keeps many people from studying it in depth. Never fear! I am here to help.

1 of the main reasons that Israel is fought over so much is that it’s the most fertile, livable area in the “Fertile Crescent” between Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Egypt. It may be a narrow sliver of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, but it can support agriculture, it has pleasant weather, and it’s along the ancient trade routes of West Asia. This meant that people have lived there since prehistoric times — the world’s oldest still-inhabited city (probably), Jericho, is there, and boasts of an 11,000-year history.

The Jews believe that 4,000 years ago, God promised Israel as a land for a man from Mesopotamia, Abraham, and his descendants. These descendants ended up as slaves in Egypt, but eventually they were freed by Moses and led out of captivity northeast to their Promised Land. Awkwardly, there were other people living there, and the Jews had to settle among them and fight a series of wars to assert their supremacy. In the 900s BCE, they were powerful enough to form a kingdom, then an empire stretching north to Syria — a golden age taking advantage of a mysterious collapse of civilization in that part of the world.

Like all empires, the Israelite Empire went into decline. First it splintered into 2 rival kingdoms. The larger 1, Israel, was conquered by Assyria (in what is now the Islamic State) in 722 BCE, and its people were exiled to other parts of the Assyrian Empire and lost their ethnic identity. The other kingdom, Judah, which had the Jewish holy city, Jerusalem, was conquered by Babylonia (in Mesopotamia) in 586 BCE, and its people were also sent into exile in Babylon.

The Jewish story might have ended there, but in a fantastic stroke of luck for them, the Babylonians were conquered themselves only 47 years later. The Jews were allowed to go back home, rebuild Jerusalem, and practice their unique religion. But they were now under Persian rule, and they had to coexist with another ethnic group north of Judah, the Samaritans. The new Judah, Judea, was only a shell of its former self, and Jews rankled at the injustice.

They revolted against Seleucid rule (the Seleucids being the replacement for the Persians) in 167 BCE and set up an independent kingdom again, but this was conquered by the Romans about 100 years later. The Jews gained a reputation for rebelliousness and pride in their unique culture and kept rising up in riots against Roman rule. After 3 full-scale revolts in the 60s, 110s and 130s CE, the Romans took drastic measures. Jerusalem, including its temple, was destroyed, and Jews were resettled outside of their homeland to break up their ethnic identity and ability to cause trouble. They became a diaspora community, scattered over the Mediterranean and later Europe, estranged from Israel but clinging staunchly to their religion, language, and culture. (Meanwhile, Christianity also emerged in Judea during this period, but it has always been a minority religion in the area and has played a marginal role in its history, except for the Crusades in the Middle Ages.)

Judea — now renamed Palestine — became home to other ethnicities: Greeks, Aramaeans, Samaritans. There were probably also Arabs, given how close the region is to Arabia. The main Arab influx, though, came in the 600s, when they conquered most of West Asia and converted the local people to Islam and introduced Arabic culture. Jerusalem is a holy city in Islam too: it was the original city that Muslims prayed towards, and even after Makkah and Madinah were elevated in importance, Jerusalem remained the 3rd-holiest city in Islam, since it was the place where Muhammad ascended to Heaven. On the site of the old Jewish temple, Palestine’s new Umayyad rulers built the al-Aqsa Mosque — something that would become a massive headache later.

The Jews had a rough time of it outside of their homeland. They faced discrimination, distrust, and suspicion from the communities they lived in. Pressure to convert to Christianity or Islam and give up Jewish culture was constant. Some places had pogroms (anti-Jewish riots). Even as Jews became more secular and assimilated more into European life in the 1800s, anti-Jewish prejudice remained strong. In despair, a group of Jews founded the Zionist movement in the 1890s, which had the goal of recreating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. (“Zion” is the hill in Jerusalem that makes up the city’s historic core and holiest sites.)

While some Jews had remained in Palestine or immigrated there earlier, the major influx really started in the 1880s. Since there were already people living there — Arabs — this caused conflict. Since many Jews were farmers or were interested in farming, they bought up arable land, dispossessing Arab farmers and sparking further resentment. Ethnic animosity and small-scale violence began, but the Arab-Israeli conflict is usually dated to 1917, when Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, declaring that it “viewed with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” See, at the time Palestine was under Osmanli rule, but the Osmanlis sternly refused to grant the Jews their own country. With World War I raging and the Osmanli Empire on its last legs, Britain wanted to draft the Jews on its side — and it worked.

The problem is, Britain had already promised the Arabs that they would have a new empire in West Asia, again as a means of enlisting support against the Osmanlis. Britain took a 3rd option altogether: ruling over Palestine itself as a colonial power. It tried to foster governments among both Arabs and Jews (a minority at the time) and only ended up getting hated by both sides. Ethnic riots and an Arab revolt broke out; Britain struggled to keep the peace. It ended up addressing the issue by walking back its pro-Jewish stance a bit and restricting further Jewish immigration… just in time for Nazi Germany’s vicious persecution of Jews and, later, the Holocaust. Desperate Jewish refugees were turned away and were forced to be smuggled into Palestine.

UN Palestine

The UN’s plan for partitioning Palestine. It never actually happened.

After World War II, a 3-way war broke out: Jews against Arabs and Jews against Britons. Britain, exasperated, asked the new UN to fix the situation. It chose the same solution India was taking to its religious conflict: partition. The Arabs would get a strip along the Egyptian border and most of the west bank of the Jordan River and a chunk in the north; the Jews would get most of the coast, the southern desert, and the area around Lake Galilee. The Jews accepted the plan, which was quite generous given that they only made up ⅓ of the population: they would get 56% of the land. The Arabs were outraged that they would have to partition their country at all and rejected the plan. Not wanting to deal with the situation anymore, the Brits just packed up and left in 1948, leaving the locals to sort things out.

The Jews proclaimed the state of Israel, finally realizing their millennia-old dream. But the neighboring Arab countries — Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt — invaded at once to squash it like a bug. But they were too disorganized, uncoordinated, and ill-trained, and Israel fought them off — and grabbed extra territory while it was at it. In an ethnic cleansing campaign, 700,000 Arabs were dispossessed, massacred, and forced into exile in nearby countries, and Arab parts of major cities like Jaffa were destroyed. What was supposed to be an Arab state became part of Jordan (the “West Bank”) and Egypt (the “Gaza Strip”).

Israel now entered an uneasy relationship with its neighbors. It was now surrounded by independent Arab countries who hated it and plotted to wipe it out. To ensure its security, it entered into alliance with America, which had been converted to the Zionist cause by Jewish lobbying. To counter this, the Soviet Union allied with Arabs and armed them. American influence proved to be much more decisive, and American weapons were a crucial factor in Israel’s victory in the 6-Day War of 1967, when it invaded and occupied the Sinai Peninsula between it and the Nile Valley, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights in southern Syria. 3 countries were defeated and humiliated in less than a week. The Arab world sank into a deep depression while Israel was filled with jubilation at getting its holy city and the namesake of Zionism back.

It became obvious that Arab countries wouldn’t be able to take over Israel. Egypt and Syria fought 2 more wars with Israel in the 1970s, and while they were ties, Israel had done better. A new Egyptian dictator, Anwar es-Sadat, replaced the passionately nationalist Gamal Abden Nasser and made peace with Israel, concluding that the conflict was a waste of time and resources and eager to improve relations with America. The peace agreement was hugely controversial at the time and denounced by Arabs everywhere — it even cost Sadat his life, since he was assassinated for it. But Egypt had been Israel’s primary antagonist, and Arab countries haven’t invaded Israel since 1973, suggesting a tacit realization that steadfast belligerence hadn’t gone anywhere.

Meanwhile, the West Bank and Gaza Strip came under Israeli military occupation. Israel didn’t really know what to do with them. The West Bank had too many places important to Judaism — not the least of which was Jerusalem — for Israel to relinquish willingly. Yet Israel didn’t want to outright annex them either — that would bring a bunch of Arabs into what is supposed to be a Jewish state. So instead, Israel let the “Palestinian territories” (the name “Palestine” being associated with an older, Arab-dominated era) remain in a twilight zone of Israeli control without local sovereignty. This did not go over well with the local Arabs. To make matters worse, Israel began a policy of settling Jews in technically illegal housing projects (“settlements”) within Palestine in the 1970s to start slowly nudging the local demographics to be more Jewish.

Bereft of any outside sponsorship, the Palestinians had to take matters into their own hands, and since they had no government or army, they resorted to terrorism. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) fought Israel with terrorist attacks from a secure base in Lebanon. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to stamp out PLO bases there, the PLO just moved to Tunisia and went right on agitating Israel. An uprising (intifada) in Palestine in the late ’80s made it clear to Israelis that 20 years of occupation hadn’t made Arabs any more willing to accept the situation. By the ’90s, Israel was beginning to realize that something would have to be done.

The solution, agreed to in 1993 after American-backed negotiations, allowed the Arabs to have their own government at last, the Palestinian Authority. It was even under the control of Israel’s archnemesis, Yasir Arafat. In return, the PLO gave up terrorism and recognized Israel. Palestine became a semi-state partially under Arab control, although Israel held on to rural areas and Jewish settlements (see map). Jordan also concluded a peace agreement with Israel in 1994. It seemed like the train was moving toward the destination commonly agreed on by the rest of the world: a “two-state solution,” with the West Bank and Gaza Strip becoming a country, Palestine, in their own right, under Arab control.

West Bank map

Image source: The Economist

But it was not to be. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who pushed through the peace accords, met Sadat’s fate in 1995. Iraq and Syria stubbornly refused to make peace with Israel. Israel held on to the Golan Heights. Content with Palestine’s semi-state status, Israel never pushed on to create a full-fledged state. A second intifada in the early ’00s went a long way in justifying this. Israel did pull out of the Gaza Strip in 2005… but then Hamas, an extremist Arab faction, took over instead, and used the land as a base to blast Israel with rockets.

Depressingly little has changed since then. The Israeli governments of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert in the ’00s seemed interested in continuing “peace” negotiations (really government negotiations at this point), but in 2009 a more conservative prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, was voted in. He has steadily continued the settlement-building policy despite almost universal international condemnation, creating Jewish communities in land earmarked for a Palestinian state. The Gaza Strip remains implacably hostile to Israel and occasionally gets into wars with it, which the international community freaks out about momentarily, only for it to settle down once the wars end. The West Bank is much poorer and less developed than Israel, while the Gaza Strip is almost at African levels thanks to an Israeli blockade. Israeli public opinion grows more and more conservative, and Netanyahu is now almost a centrist figure, with politicians like Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett pushing for no more concessions to Arabs.

For their part, Arabs have generally been stubborn and implacably hostile to Israel. This history should show that this policy has not worked out well for them — the UN partition plan in 1948 gave them more land than is under negotiation today, and West Bank leader Mahmud Abbas only admitted in 2011 that rejecting it was a mistake. Hamas, Iran, and zealous elements in the Arab world are still unreconciled to Israel’s existence after 69 years and boycott anything having to do with it; heck, they can’t even bring themselves to call it “Israel,” preferring to go with “the Zionist entity.” On the other hand, the Arab refugees from 1948 remain in Lebanon and Jordan all these years later, and discrimination of Arabs within Israel bolster claims that Jews will never treat them as equals.

Although the political entanglements are knotted enough, it’s the deep-rooted ethnic animosity that really drives the conflict. Arabs and Jews live separate lives, imbibe biased accounts of the conflict, nourish their own senses of victimhood, and see each other with distrust and even hatred. Religious differences add fuel to this fire — I have never read a convincing plan for what to do with Jerusalem, where Jewish and Muslim holy sites are literally on top of each other and both sides have long histories and sentimental attachments. The most that can be said is that it’s now a low-level conflict, with only occasional riots and wars instead of prolonged bloodbaths. But in a sense that makes it even more dangerous: Jews are lulled into a sense of complacency and contentment with the status quo, which largely benefits them, while Arabs smolder in resentment, convinced that violence is the only way for them to get what they want.




This is only a rough idea of the potential new borders, but it’s a good start for haggling. Image source: Business Insider Indonesia


Last week, representatives from the Syrian government and the rebels in arms against it sat down for peace talks at the UN base in Geneva. Things got off to a bad start. The 2 sides won’t even sit in the same room as each other and rely on go-betweens to shuttle from room to room with their messages. A previous peace talk sponsored by the UN failed. Previous attempts at cease-fires on the ground failed thanks to Syrian maneuvering at odds with the spirit of the agreements. And the UN privately admits that Syria’s just too dangerous to effectively monitor and maintain any cease-fire or peace.

I am not optimistic about these peace talks, but the sad truth is they’re still probably the best strategy for putting an end to the war. As a previous post should make clear, the war in Syria is extraordinarily complicated and messy: There are multiple actors on the ground, multiple foreign backers on the sidelines (and increasingly on the ground too), multiple agendas, years of mistrust earned through bitter war, and centuries of hatred steeped in religious differences, and they all stand in the way of peace. But the war is at a stalemate; even the much-ballyhooed Russian intervention last September didn’t tip the scales one way or another. And civilians are suffering and dying and fleeing in massive numbers. A negotiated peace seems to offer the best and most realistic exit strategy for this miserable war.

In America, the Republican candidates in the ridiculously long presidential campaign are almost all banging war drums. Refugees from the war zone are considered unsettling and possibly dangerous. The Islamic State’s seizure of Iraqi cities that had been hard-fought for in the ’00s is considered a disgrace to veterans and their sacrifices. And most of all, the recent terrorist attacks in France and California* reminded everyone of the Islamic State’s global ambitions and the lure it offers to any young, hotheaded, and disillusioned Muslim active on social media. The president is a coward, they say. He needs to think more about national security, they say. America needs to “bomb the shit out of” the Islamic State, they say, and put “boots on the ground.”

Put aside the fact that these strategies are lacking in specifics and often call for things Barack Obama is basically already doing. Put aside the fact that America has been getting steadily more involved in the war, from stationing more soldiers in Iraq to training and advising fighters in Syria and bombing the Islamic State relentlessly. Put aside what I’ve argued before — that politicians spew hawkish rhetoric mostly to look tough rather than to actually help a situation.

Suppose America (or some other powerful country) did escalate the war effort. Suppose there was more bombing, more death, more stuff blowing up. Suppose the Islamic State’s financial lifelines were cut off. Suppose there were boots on the ground and the Islamic State was wiped off the face of the earth. There are obviously major obstacles to all these supposes, but just imagine if the Islamic State was defeated.

And then what?

Whenever an outside power destroys a government, there is what we call a “power vacuum.” They never last long. Someone has to step in and take charge. Usually it’s best to figure that out in advance or else there will probably be a breakdown in law and order. So who would fill the vacuum? The Syrian government, which has been discredited throughout the Arab and Muslim world for its brutality and duplicity? The Iraqi government, which has been discredited in Iraq for its blatant sectarianism, thuggishness, incompetence, corruption and economic mismanagement? The Kurds, who refused to march on Mosul, the Islamic State’s capital, because it’s outside their traditional territory? An American occupation, which worked so well in Iraq in the ’00s?

What’s most infuriating is that poor long-term planning and lack of proper consideration for the situation on the ground doomed the Iraq War of the ’00s. George Bush was consumed with a desire to finish his father’s mission (or to get the sweet, sweet oil, or spread democracy in West Asia, I don’t want to get into this here) and fixated on the invasion phase of the war without thinking through how the occupation would work. It’s rumored that he didn’t even know that Iraq had a sectarian split until during the war he launched. Yes, America is easily the world’s most powerful country and can blast most of its enemies to smithereens without much effort. But that isn’t really the hard part of fighting a war; the hard part is arranging a political system that won’t fall apart once you leave (and make no mistake, the US is uninterested in long occupations).

This is what makes Obama pause, not any innate “cowardice” or sympathy with terrorists. The situation in Iraq and Syria is extremely complicated and intervening can easily make the situation worse. And frankly, after years of war, deprivation and chaotic violence, the people in the Islamic State need stability, peace and order, not more shooting.

Given the situation on the ground, it’s time for the participants in the wars in Mesopotamia** to think outside of the box. It’s time for them to recognize reality and face the facts. It’s time for them to start considering a strategy which has rarely been discussed and is basically off the table in most peace negotiations: partition.

The wars in Mesopotamia are rooted in deep-seated distrust between the opposing forces, which stems from religious/sectarian/ethnic differences. When Iraq’s Sunnis were thrown out of power in 2003, they never really forgave the new government. Although Syria might have the firepower and manpower and a formidable ally in Russia, it is a minority regime, with a base of support mostly restricted to one part of the country and deeply fearful of most of its people. Meanwhile, the Kurds have been neglected by both countries, which suits them just fine because they would rather be independent.

I believe that after 5 years of war, the best strategy at the peace negotiations is to propose a partition of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State drew support in Sunni Iraq because it at least tries to administer its territory decently and it is seen as a Sunni guardian force against vicious Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias. The portion of IS in Syria has historically been removed from the rest of the country, since it’s part of the same river system as Iraq and there’s a desert in the middle. The locals welcome IS because it is rooted in that region. On the other hand, they’re not big fans of its religious zealotry and horrific violence, and a lot of its troops are idiot foreign recruits. Why not arrange for a new country (Assyria, maybe?) in what is now the Islamic State — east Syria plus most of north Iraq? That would settle most of the locals’ grievances with their old regimes and make them more willing to get rid of their current crazy terrorist overlords.

A similar strategy could be used in west Syria, where the war is fiercest. Alawites cling to the Syrian regime because they fear (probably rightly) the vengeance that will fall upon them if the rebels win. Sunnis never really trusted them anyway. The Alawite area has more in common with Lebanon, the multi-sectarian country to the south. Why not agree to create an independent Alawite state with the Assad family in charge? It would mean allowing a hated dictator to stay, but expecting him to leave for no reason when he hasn’t left in 5 years hasn’t worked so far.

Finally, it seems obvious that the Kurds need their own country. They have been oppressed and discriminated against in both Iraq and Syria and speak a different language and have a different culture from Arabs. They have been mostly self-governing since the American invasion anyway, with much better results than in Baghdad, Iraq’s capital. An independent Kurdistan would basically formalize the separate flag, government, and army Kurdistan already has.

There are obviously problems with this strategy too. Syrians howled with rage when France partitioned their country along similar lines in the 1920s. The war to preserve the Syrian state will have failed. There are no assurances that any of these countries would be democratic, which is what this war was supposed to be about, at least at first. Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, has stayed in power despite a mediocre military record and lots of help from Hezbollah (a Shi’ite militia in Lebanon), Iran and Russia; he remains probably the single biggest obstacle to peace. Baghdad has traditionally been a mixed city, and its status would be contentious, although it’s undergone ethnic cleansing in recent years thanks to the civil war, and I don’t think its allocation to Shi’ite Iraq would be too disputed. Turkey has consistently blocked any move towards an independent Kurdistan; I personally think it should give up, but since NATO politics mean convincing it to do so won’t be easy, maybe it can be assured that a Kurdistan in Iraq and Syria doesn’t necessarily mean a Kurdistan in Turkey?

Commentators like pointing out how the colonial legacy has screwed over countries around the world; one of their favorite examples is the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, when Britain and France agreed to split Mesopotamia between them, creating modern Iraq and Syria despite the artificiality of those borders given the ethnic mix and history on the ground. Fine. That partition was a failure. Instead of just complaining about it all the time, why not revisit the agreement 100 years later and carve up Iraq and Syria along ethnic lines?

A lot of people are reluctant to endorse this strategy because it would mean caving in to the toxic sectarianism that is engulfing West Asia. It would mean writing the obituary for the Iraqi and Syrian states, unless the rump states in Damascus and Baghdad want to claim continuity with them. It would be a sad moment of resignation for the Arab world. But politics should recognize reality, and the current reality is that Sunnis and Shi’ites, Arabs and Kurds don’t trust each other. Segregation might not be a pleasant outcome, but it’s preferable to unending bloodshed.

*There were other terrorist attacks too, but these don’t get mentioned as much.

*The term for the “land between the rivers (Tigris and Euphrates),” or Iraq and east Syria.