Support the Iranian-American Nuclear Bargain

September 2, 2015

I have been very disappointed with Sen. Schumer and those of his colleagues in both houses of Congress who will not support the agreement with Iran. I’m sure they have convinced themselves that their stand is good for America, good for Israel, and good for their supporters. They should know better.

Many people like to talk about Iran as if it’s uniform – Iran is this; it acts like that. But Iran is many things just like this country is many things –Red and Blue; hawks and doves. We change, sometimes radically –flipping right or left. Our politics and culture respond to events.

The same is true in Iran. Some of us who have worked in Iran lived in historically tribal areas where their government had forced people to give up their migratory lives. Some lived in areas that had supported the Shah; others that were hostile to our interference, helping to depose an elected government and restore the Shah. The position of women has been changing radically; they are extremely well educated and participate in large numbers in Iranian professional life as doctors, attorneys, etc. Iranian culture is also changing radically, reflected in widespread and very public choices of dress, music and customs in conflict with the traditional religious injunctions. Attendance and participation in religious rituals is decreasing considerably. Even the clergy are affected by the changes. This is not your parents’ Iran.

A large portion of the Iranian people are very westernized and very friendly to the U.S. They are the people that chose Prime Minister Rouhani. Another group organized around the Ayatollah has been very suspicious. Contemporary Iranian politics is about the jockeying between those groups.

We can make sure that the hard-liners win the Iranian contest by withdrawing from diplomacy, refusing to resume trade, and making it clear that nothing will lead to rapproachement. That will lead to the most anti-American outcomes within Iran.

But if we are willing to engage, to use diplomacy, to arrange agreements to lower the tensions, to trade and travel, we will strengthen our friends there and help them gain and hold the upper hand. We can’t and don’t control Iranian politics. But we can and should see the complexity that is modern Iran and take advantage of the openings it gives us. Refusing to see and account for the changes in Iran isn’t hard-headed realism, it’s blindness.

We’ve made mistakes like that before. Our hatred of communism closed our eyes to the realities of Asian politics and blinded us to the possibility of using Vietnam to play balance of power politics between Russia and China. After an expensive war, we now trade with the same regime we fought for almost a decade. We can be smarter with Iran.

Iran is now the most westernized and stable of all the Middle Eastern Islamic countries. Around Israel, in every direction, countries have been getting less stable and more dangerous. Missing the opportunity to cultivate our friends in Iran would be a huge mistake for us and for the Israelis whether or not they can see that.

I have one concern – that the price of the agreement with Iran will be to arm Israel enough so that they feel free to thumb their noses at American efforts to broker a peace. I think it would be a good corrective for Israeli politics to wonder about American support. This cannot be a world without constraints, for Israel, Iran or anyone.

There is something called a self-fulfilling prophecy. Things happen because our beliefs make it happen. We can wreck the future or we can build a decent one. It’s our choice.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 1, 2015.

Advertisements

Iranian-American Diplomacy

June 15, 2015

My wife and I are back from a reunion of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) who had served in Iran, and a conference with some of this country’s experts about Iran.

Our first plenary speaker, Bill Beeman of the University of Minnesota, is a very well-known scholar about Iran. He described the complexity of their system of manners and the ease with which foreigners misunderstand Iran. I asked about Iran experts in the State Department. Beeman explained that Secretary Kissinger attacked what he called clientitis, where experts sympathize with the country they study and resist what political leaders want to do. Following Kissinger, the foreign service routinely rotates diplomats to prevent too much specialization. That has advantages and disadvantages; dialogue between experts deeply steeped in a culture and generalists with other concerns is important.

Beeman added that many in Washington claim expertise about Iran, connected with think tanks with axes to grind. Scholars independent of ideological organizations can afford to see reality without coloring it with what they want to happen. Certainly independent scholars need to be heard.

I am convinced that Beeman’s message about the complexity of Iranian culture and the ease of misunderstanding it is accurate. All former Peace Corps Volunteers, and others who have immersed themselves in a foreign culture, can attest to the ways that cultural signals are easily misunderstood in both directions. In diplomacy that can spell disaster.

Our headline speaker was former Ambassador John Limbert, the last U.S. ambassador to Iran and a hostage for 444 days. Limbert now teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy.

I brought Beaman’s comments to Ambassador Limbert. He responded that the State Department has some knowledgeable people and a seasoned negotiator like Secretary Kerry can pick up a great deal by listening closely. I teach interviewing and I know the importance of active listening that seeks to understand without substituting one’s own assumptions. But I couldn’t shake concern that decades of detachment from Iran will handicap negotiators on both sides. It’s too easy to see each other as hostile and assume the worst, or to miss what is really important to them and misunderstand what they are actually offering. That’s especially difficult because so many people claim to know what Iran intends.

As an example of the complexity of our and Iran’s interests, Ambassador Limbert described the U.S. expectation after the Revolution that Iran would be hostile toward the Soviet Union. The Russians had treated Iran as part of its empire for a long time and there were good reasons for Iranian hostility. But Iran did its best to maintain friendly relations and trade with the USSR. Had they suddenly become pro-Soviet? Or were they defending themselves by trying to avoid incurring Soviet wrath. Limbert’s point was that we have to learn to see their actions through their eyes, not our own, to understand and respect their own Iranian nationalism just as they must respect ours.

We have many overlapping interests. But Iran also cares about the mistreatment of Shi’a populations in the Middle East. Iran sees that as defensive and about justice, not about conquest or aggression. It is easy for Iranians to see the US as supporting a ring of Sunni dynasties around Iran.

That doesn’t create any clear picture of what should happen. Limbert’s point is that diplomacy is both necessary and difficult. Seeing it simply as us against them misses the complexities and the opportunities. In other words, give diplomacy a chance.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 16, 2015.


%d bloggers like this: