Iran Nuclear Talks – Car Crash Accelerates Debate Over Saudi Women Drivers – The Arab Sexual Revolution

Dec 7, 2010 3:23am

IRAN NUCLEAR TALKS: DISSECTING THE PESSIMISM AROUND A BREAKTHROUGH Prevailing winds of pessimism around this week’s Iran talks are driven by a series of bad facts, bad enough to leave some observers calling the game over. ‘The talks could last into early summer of 2011, but will likely collapse sooner,’ wrote Cliff Kupchan of the Eurasia Group. ‘That would lead to a renewed US-led push on sanctions, and a somewhat increased chance of Israeli strikes.’ Another ominous outcome is the threat of a nuclear arms race across the Middle East. As diplomacy rolls over month after month, Iran is winding down the shot clock on a solution by moving steadily toward breakout capacity, the complete kit of tools and know-how to build a nuclear weapon. Arab countries, for fear of falling behind, would scramble to do the same (‘It would open the door to an arms race…make this region on the edge a thousand times more than before,’ Sheikh Khalid al Khalifa, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, told me.) Here is a partial anatomy of the pessimism:

Bad Fact #1: Diplomats close to the process tell us neither side has much to offer by way of concessions. ‘Iran has a strategic purpose for their nuclear program. They want this as a weapons material and to be able to make that into weapons as quickly as possible. Most of the world does not want Iran to have that capability, and that's where the two positions collide,’ says Mark Fitzpatrick, a nonproliferation expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Bad Fact #2: The breakdown of confidence, however much there was at the point when these talks stalled more than a year ago. ‘That confidence is gone, it’s like broken glass all over the floor,’ said one diplomat. In past months the US and Iran have each drilled down into what the other considers bad behaviour: the US leading a round of sanctions that are squeezing Iran’s economy, Iran enriching uranium from 3.5% to 19.75% (closer to weapons grade), growing its stockpile and bragging on Sunday that it had mastered the nuclear fuel cycle. The US doesn’t trust Iran, citing Iran’s continued defiance violent meddling around the region. Iran doesn’t trust anyone, least of all the United States, whom it considers an imperial bully. In that climate they’re each going to have to give enough to make the other happy.

Bad Fact #3: We may be out of good ideas. It’s been more than a year since a proposed fuel swap was hailed as the ‘elegant solution’ – Iran handing over the bulk of its uranium stockpile in exchange for fuel rods, which can be used for civilian reactors but are hard to divert for use in a nuclear weapon. That deal stopped short, ostensibly over the terms; Iran later announced it had cut a similar deal with Turkey and Brazil, on terms it liked much better, in a deal it’s hoping to introduce into the Geneva process. It will take creative thinking to untie a complex knot of political and technical issues. One such idea, keeping nuclear material in a global fuel bank, came up at this weekend’s Manama Dialogue; Iran’s Foreign Minister Mottaki took it down a notch by suggesting that any global fuel bank should have a branch in Tehran. Translation: we don’t want to give away our nuclear beans by sending fuel abroad.

Two voices of sort-of optimism are coming from the US and Iran. "The start of talks with Iran will be an exceptional opportunity for the western countries," said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Saturday. "If you are really honest and intend to get positive results from the talks, you must…come and sit (to the negotiating table) and talk over constructive cooperation."

The same day Secretary of State Hilary Clinton told a delegation of Iranian officials, ‘Nearly two years ago, President Obama extended your government a sincere offer of dialogue. We are still committed to this offer.’ Equally important, one of those Iranian officials told me, was the fact that she affirmed Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear technology. It may sound bland, but in US-Iranian diplo-speak, it’s hitting a sweet spot.

Both sides have domestic political reasons to engage, at least giving an impression that they are making progress. And both sides have leverage – the US over sanctions and other punitive measures, Iran over a growing hand in regional affairs, from Beirut to Kabul.

‘The best this process can deliver over a long period of time is convincing Iran that it is in its long-term interest not to cross the nuclear [weapons] threshold,’ said Nader Mousavizadeh, CEO of Oxford Analytica.

‘That’s the game I think we’re in. There’s enough diplomatic space here that people feel it’s worth trying for a deal.’ More links:
» Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) briefing docs on Nuclear Iran | Fuel Swap Proposal
» CSIS – Cordesman/Toukan: Options in Dealing with Iran’s Nuclear Program
» Business Week: Iran Talks: Strong Rhetoric, Low Expectations | Washington Post: Iran Signals Gaps Ahead of Global Talks | Foreign Policy Interviews Clinton on Iran: The Regime is on the Ropes IN SAUDI ARABIA, CAR CRASH ACCELERATES DEBATE OVER WOMEN DRIVERS When a car crashed in the desert last month, killing four women, there was a surprise in store for Saudi Arabia: one of those women was behind the wheel. Defying the ban on women drivers, the twenty-something was reportedly joy riding with nine female passengers in her SUV when she lost control and hit a barrier. It made tragic fodder for the conservative argument that women with more independence are a danger to society and to themselves.

Still, an ever bolder set of women in Saudi Arabia disagree – and more than a few are hitting the road. Some, like the desert driver, are just looking to relieve boredom. In rural areas and private compounds it’s a largely acceptable way to get around. For others, it’s making a clear political statement; in Jeddah, defiant young women dress like men, throwing off their abayas and swapping head scarves for baseball caps, then cruising around town. One of them told ABC News that police who catch them don’t flinch, they just trail behind and follow them home, delivering a warning at most.

The original Saudi women drivers took off 20 years ago. In November 1990 dozens of women met in a Safeway parking lot in Riyadh, then drove around the block in what was a seminal protest on wheels. The demonstration got dozens of women arrested, fired from their jobs, and denounced as whores and degenerates.

‘There was a sense of rejection from society, a rejection from other ladies,’ said Dr. Hessah Al Sheikh, one of the protest drivers. She also felt the heat of her tribe, being a direct descendent of Mohammed Abdul Wahhab, the puritanical founder of the Wahhabi Islam that governs Saudi Arabia and slams…well…women drivers. Al Sheikh told ABC News she was disowned by some members of her family.

‘There was a price…[but] I don’t regret I,’ she said. ‘We learned that society is not easy to change. But we can see the difference now.’

The difference is that a new generation of Saudi women is more comfortable asserting themselves, especially under the reign of King Abdullah. Having a relative reformer in power has meant fewer penalties for speaking out, in campaigns like ‘We the Women’ which used social media and viral bumper stickers to make noise for change.

But activism can backfire – the 1990 demo provoked Islamic hardliners, then in the throes of the ‘sahwa’ or conservative awakening. That pushed the Ministry of Interior to formalize the ban on women drivers (before that it hadn’t been in writing). Then, like today, a set of Saudi women also opposed a women’s right to drive; in September they staged a play to make the point, acting out a script that suggested it would breed immorality and havoc.

Driving has become the flagship issue for Saudi women, advanced by practical economics – more households need a second income to get by, so women are literally driven into the workplace. In a country with no public transportation that means spending 40-50% of their salaries on hiring a chauffeur.

‘Every year it’s becoming a more pressing social and economic issue…more and more Princes were going on the record to say they’d support a change,’ said Christoph Wilcke, an expert on Saudi law with Human Rights Watch. In 2005 the Shura Council, a consultative government body, looked to phase in women drivers – starting by only allowing them to drive by day, if above a certain age, or without makeup on so they wouldn’t entice men to drive off the road. For many, it was a step forward.

But Hatoon Al Fassi, a Professor of Women’s History at King Saud University, wasn’t encouraged. ‘I’m losing hope,’ she told ABC News. ‘Reform in Saudi Arabia is not consistent. It doesn’t follow a clear or written strategy. Something might change, but then there’s a scared conservative person implementing it who end up stuffing the decree in a drawer.’

‘It uncovers the hypocrisy of Saudi society and our struggle between modernity and conservatism, and the way women are always the sacrifice to this debate.’ More links:
» The Saudi Women Driving Blog | NYT: The Female Factor: Fighting for the Right to Have Limited Rights
» Gulf News: Saudi Women Use Fatwa in Driving Bid
THE ARAB SEXUAL REVOLUTION: IT'S ON Across the Arab world 2010 has been like the summer of ’69. The Arab sexual revolution, you could call it, is underway.

But it's a simmer, not a boil. Social mores have shifted over the past decade, experts say, and they've moved far from the traditional and more prudish Arab context.

'There won’t be women throwing away their bras. This is silent, secretive, individualistic, among educated women,' said Samir Khalaf, author of 'Sexuality in the Arab World'. In the old way of thinking, he describes, a young woman's body didn't belong to her – she would reach a certain age and be forced to marry. 'Now she wants to use her body in any way possible,' he said.

Khalaf was speaking from Lebanon, always the outlier in Arab thinking and liberalism. But the shift is happening around the region, in different ways and at different speeds. In Saudi Arabia it's in the TV commercials for Viagra and its generics, promoting pleasure within the marital space. There are now calls for sex education in the Saudi Kingdom, the lack of it being blamed for rising divorce rates. In Egypt, you see changing attitudes in the rise to fame of a devout Muslim sexologist, in Syria the booming market for lingerie and, in the Gulf, the announced plans of Bahrain's first sex shop to expand to Doha and Dubai.

'It must be happening because the people needs [the] change,' the sex shop owner, Khadija Ahmed, wrote in an email to ABC News. 'Almost all the Arabic and Muslim people [are becoming] different because they are all now open on the world…I think within 5 years everything will change regarding this.'

The rise of the sexy Arab does contrast with what seems to be a wave of religious piety, and a fundamentalist Islam that continues to yell its message. Even among moderates there is a backlash, a complaint that 'American promiscuity' is what's spreading (see: the swingers parties and websites across the region).

But the change is also within; in a culture where familial, religious and community ties are supposed to supersede one's desires, individuals are refusing to meet expectations they no longer value. Others are adapting structures – like temporary marriage – to accommodate their needs and their modern lifestyles. For those who don't shift, they're still swimming in sexy media, from movies to music videos to satellite TV. Even Arab magazines have become sexier in the last decade, with Lebanon's 'Jasad' ('body' in Arabic) and 'Barra' ('out') breaking the mold.

But it's not all red roses and edible underwear. Sexual harassment is a daily and dangerous concern for many women, with campaigns against harassment led by fed up females. In its essence, the social change afoot is about asserting oneself, in realms public and private, like never before.   More links:
» Der Spiegel on Sex and Taboos in the Islamic World | Love, Islamic Style
» Jasad Magazine | Book Review of Joumana Haddad’s ‘I Killed Sheherazade’   MIDEAST TIDBITS

ABC NEWS: WHERE THINGS STAND: IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN

THE ECONOMIST: IRAQ’S GOVERNMENT BEGINS TO EMERGE | NY TIMES: AS US LEAVES, IRAQIS SUFFER ECONOMIC TOLL | WIKILEAKED MEMO: IRAN ‘DOMINANT PLAYER’ IN IRAQI POLITICS

UAE RESIDENT FUELS ROAD-TRIPPING WHEELCHAIR WITH THE SUN MONITORS REPORT WIDESPREAD FRAUD IN EGYPTIAN ELECTION | REUTERS ELECTION FACTBOX | NPR ON DISCONTENT IN EGYPT CS MONITOR ON AL QAEDA IN YEMEN: AMERICA’S TOUGHEST TERROR TEST TIME: IS MOSSAD TAKING OUT IRAN’S NUCLEAR SCIENTISTS? FP MIDDLE EAST CHANNEL ON QATAR’S MOMENT OF GLORY | FACTBOX: QATAR’S 2022 WORLD CUP BID

CRISIS GROUP ON TRIAL BY FIRE: POLITICS OF THE HARIRI TRIBUNAL | HARIRI MURDER INDICTMENTS ‘IN MONTHS’ | ANALYSIS: HEZBOLLAH LOOKS FOR AN IMPROBABLE EXIT | FT SPECIAL REPORT ON LEBANON

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