What’s up with Iran?

September 3, 2019

This Administration continues to try to inflame the relationship between the US and Iran. So let’s look at how we got here, for which we have to go back to about 1981. We could start earlier but that’s about the US and Iran screaming about which was worse and which was justified – our deposing their Prime Minister and installing the Shah in 1953, or their seizure of the Embassy and holding Americans hostage in 1979. Both sides are equally convinced they win that argument. So let’s start with 1981.

Iran tried several times since 1981 to meet, discuss, and work out our differences with everything on the table, calling one such effort a “dialogue of civilizations.” We largely refused or scuttled their efforts. More than refused, we did our best to isolate Iran, to leave them out of any and all discussions about the future of the Middle East. Finally Obama sat down with them and got to a deal which not only restricted their enrichment of nuclear fuel, but also created a platform for confidence building between us and them, only to have his successor rip it up – actually rip up our obligations while trying to leave theirs intact!

What is Iran supposed to do? For all but a few of those 40 years there have been no meetings, discussions or deals, and when we and they reached an agreement, the US dishonored it. What are they supposed to do?

Trump seems to think they should role over and say “Uncle” but why shouldn’t they expect the Eric Garner treatment: Iran, “I can’t breathe”; US, “OK, die.” The very idea of unconditional surrender is not one they could trust or accept, not one the Iranian public would trust or accept, and not one that any reasonable Iranian could believe was a good idea. In other words we have spent most of 40 years teaching them that they have no option but to push back.

We are not their only problem – a Shia nation in a sea of Sunni countries, they need allies. Israel is helpful because a number of countries in that area hate the Israeli occupation of lands the Palestinians owned. By arming guerrilla armies, Iran makes itself look like a shining white knight among Islamic countries, and it also makes clear that Iran is not powerless and has to be taken into account, at least about affairs of that region. The US hasn’t gotten that point but we’ve been stung anyway – to cheers, open or muffled, of others in the Islamic world.

Scholars and diplomats, understand the problem, by the way, and have been writing about the effect of isolating Iran. But American prejudices don’t allow realism about the Middle East.

So asking what Iran should do puts the focus on the wrong country. Iran was willing to work with us. There is a lot of latent fondness and admiration for this country among the Iranian people. Iran has in fact worked with Israel – until we upset the Middle Eastern balance of power by crushing and eliminating Iraq from the calculus. Indeed American diplomats were stunned when Iran and Israel pulled apart after the US crushed Iraq.

The real problem is that since 1981, American policy toward the Middle East has been governed by prejudice rather than intelligent analysis and careful calculation. In other words, America, know thyself.

Full disclosure, Professor Gottlieb’s wife is now president of the Peace Corps Iran Association, and he is a member of its Advocacy Committee.

 


Our handling of Iran is juvenile

January 28, 2019

While we have been focused on domestic politics, some of what this Administration has been doing abroad poses serious risks. The Administration has been trying to make Iran the devil behind everything we don’t like and threats have been flying back and forth. That has many of us concerned about where we are going.

The MEK has been the darling of the Administration as a potential successor to the mullahs because they both dislike the Iranian regime. Never mind that the MEK objected when Khomeini decided to release the hostages, that it has been a terrorist organization and killed Americans. Never mind that it has no support in Iran because it backed Iraq against Iran in a war that left 300,000 Iranians dead, and never mind that human rights organizations have documented its abuses. Never mind that Iranians despise the MEK’s version of Islam because it is “worse than the current mullahs.” But it is apparently enough that it dislikes the mullahs regardless of what might happen if they actually tried to take power in Iran, mirroring the tragedy of the second Bush war with Iraq.

Our handling of Iran is both juvenile and dangerous.

We, in this country, are very upset that Russia may have interfered in our elections. Yet we behave dismissively about the American engineered coup d’etat that removed the democratically selected prime minister of Iran and brought the Shah back.

That was a while ago but it led directly to the taking of hostages 26 years later. Everyone in Iran knew that American staff inside the Embassy had reorganized a failed coup d’etat, ended democratic government and brought monarchy back. So yes, the Iranians violated international norms by storming and seizing the Embassy, but would we do less if we believed that Russia was organizing a coup in their Washington embassy? Or would it have been our patriotic duty to stop it by any means necessary?

Yet all the enmity between Iran and the US stems from those two events and we don’t seem to be able to get past it. Iran tried on several occasions to reestablish a decent relationship with the US. It offered to negotiate the full panoply of differences between us. But no president before Obama was willing to deal with them. It was considered unpatriotic even to talk with Iran.

We changed the balance of power in the Middle East by defeating Iraq, leaving Iran the sole major local power and target because power in the region had become unbalanced. This country then worked to complete their local isolation, refusing to include them in regional meetings and arrangements. Their relationship with Israel had been fine and productive until we tried to squeeze them out. Like Germany in NATO, Iran could easily have been included in regional security arrangements. It could and would have become a much better friend than the likes of the Saudis.

But we got furious at every step, shaking fists, making threats, even threatening war, instead of using our heads to create a peaceful Middle East. It’s been much like a fight between kids in a sandbox except that all the kids have powerful weapons. Some presidents need to grow up, for the sake of our fellow citizens.

Tyrants want enemies to vilify in order to unite the country behind them instead of against them. It’s also a distraction from the embarrassments of domestic politics. But warlike behavior can get out of hand, leading some young men to their deaths and families to become refugees. Getting people to unite behind an unpopular president is a sick reason for people to go to their deaths.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 29, 2019.

 

 


Iran, Hardliners and Peacemakers Here and There

May 31, 2017

Our love for our country and recognition that we have many big-hearted citizens sometimes lulls us into assuming that we act appropriately on the world stage. But ignorance too often breaks the connection between good intentions and smart behavior. Iran emerged from World War II with a parliamentary government and a democratically selected Prime Minister. But the British and Americans didn’t like his stand on oil – he wanted a larger share of the profits for his own country. At Britain’s urging, we helped stage a coup that took him down and reinstalled the Shah of Iran. Initially, the Prime Minister got wind of the coup and defeated it. But, in the American Embassy, a second coup was planned and executed. In 1953 the Shah of Iran was reinstalled and this country took credit for it.

That was too bad. There was and is a lot of admiration in Iran for European and American ways. The very fact that they had a democratic government reflected that. The legal system and the school system reflected French approaches. But the Persians did not admire our unseating Prime Minister Mosadegh. And they knew and did not forget the role of the American Embassy in bringing that plot to fruition.

Americans in Iran felt the crosswinds. There was a great deal of respect for this country and our ideals. Americans were largely welcome. Women in the Peace Corps covered up and men they knew often protected them from any inappropriate behavior by others. Some of the men in the cities were more conflicted but villagers I met were particularly welcoming.

The Revolution in 1979 had little or nothing to do with America despite some of the language coming from the clerics. Americans had felt the rising anger toward the Shah in the years before the Revolution and Peace Corps postings ended three years before the Revolution.

With the Revolution secured, it should have been easy to arrange freedom for the American hostages. But unlike former presidents who dealt with hostages, Carter magnified the event instead of cooling it off, which gave Reagan the opportunity to arrange the delay of their release until his inauguration. The result has been a much more fraught, angry and distrustful relationship than it should have been. In effect, the American role in the 1953 coup is still having repercussions in Iran and in the Middle East.

Obama took a step toward cooling down the enmity with the nuclear deal. And most recently, the Iranian people have rejected the desire of the clerics for the second national election in a row in favor of a president who is more open to working with the West.

But the background of hostility makes that hard. They remember Mosadegh and we remember the hostages. The rhetoric coming from hardliners in each country remains very harsh. The House has just voted to impose new sanctions just when Iranians have rejected their hard-liners and the Senate may be preparing to follow suit. But Trump has an opportunity if he is aware enough to see and grab it. He can strengthen the pro-western public in Iran by toning down the rhetoric, engaging in tactful diplomacy and taking advantages of opportunities to make mutually beneficial deals with Iran, or he can be Trump, call names, and burn the enmities in for another century.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 30, 2017.


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