Future Oriented Diplomacy Toward Iran

July 22, 2015

We did something that infuriated Iranians in 1953 by organizing a coup removing their democratically selected Prime Minister. They did something that properly infuriated us in 1979 by taking our embassy staff hostage. George Bush announced that Iran was part of the Axis of Evil. So now is the die cast? Are we doomed to permanent enmity? Trapped in stereotypes and hatred, too many see no way to a better future except by deepening the conflict with every kind of force.

I have a fair amount of contact with people who study Iran or spend time there periodically. And they all tell me the same things. Iran is changing. Even clerical views are becoming less radical. The population at large is becoming more secular, less radical, and narrowing the clergy’s options. There is less attendance at the mosques and more activity that contradicts the strict interpretations of Islamic theology that worry Americans. Iranians are wearing unsanctioned clothing, listening to unsanctioned music and news, even dancing and producing theatre. Not only middle-class Iranians but up and down the income scale and across Iran geographically people are changing toward much more cosmopolitan views and lifestyles.

Those developments are important. They signal a widespread Iranian desire for rapprochement with this country, a weakening and a softening of clerical control over the government, and the possibility of moving toward much better relations between our countries.

We should not lose sight of the fact that Iran had a democratic government long before the Revolution and that Iran had an Israeli diplomatic presence while the rest of the Middle East treated Israel as a pariah. Although the Iranian Revolution dislocated some of those traditions, Iran cannot be lumped in with the radicalization of some sects in the Sunni world. It has long been following a separate, westernizing path.

A westernizing trend with deep roots in the population of an economically progressive and powerful Islamic country needs to be encouraged. Despite all the rhetoric about bringing Iran to its knees with sanctions, the sanctions are being used in Iran to sustain the more conservative elements in Iranian religion and politics. It is a clumsy American foreign policy that guarantees that the future will be worse than the past. The short term is dominated by disputes. Diplomacy, however, cannot ignore the long term.

That was the genius of the European Union. Germany and France had been enemies, repeatedly fighting major wars over several centuries. Yet after World War II they were united, but not by sanctions, reparations and renewed threats. Instead we rebuilt Germany under the Marshall plan, while French and German statesmen, with British and American backing, envisioned a world in which Germany could be a partner and an ally. That took vision, not merely the repetition of slogans about battles and hatreds.

I don’t mean to imply that the EU is a model that can be repeated wherever there are enemies. But diplomacy must work toward a vision for how we can share a better world.

That is really the strength of the Obama-Kerry plan. Instead of insisting that old disputes must fan future ones, it strives to reduce the friction and heal the wounds, while important historic forces work inside Iran so that it can regain a positive role in resolving middle-Eastern struggles.

And yes, of course, this agreement does not solve everything. The Iranians reached out to George Bush with a proposal to put a broad range of disputes on the table but instead of responding through diplomatic channels, he publicly called Iran part of an Axis of Evil. It’s hard to tell what that may have cost us. As some diplomats say, put everything on the table, agree on nothing. My point instead is that there are fundamental developments in Iran that should be encouraged, and that it is a huge mistake to write them off. Lack of vision can make a decent future unreachable.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 21, 2015.


Link to Beeman on the Iran deal

July 16, 2015

Here is a link to an article by Bill Beeman, Iran specialist and U. Minnesota anthropologist just back from a trip to Iran, that I think well worth reading:

Iran Won the Vienna Accords By Agreeing to Stop What It Never Was Doing

http://newamericamedia.org/2015/07/how-iran-won-the-vienna-accords-by-agreeing-to-stop-what-it-never-was-doing.php

New America Media, Commentary, William O. Beeman, Posted: Jul 14, 2015


What we Must See in Any Nuclear Deal with Iran

July 6, 2015

[This from William O. Beeman, Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota, who has just returned from several weeks in Iran. It was written for distribution in Minnesota but is posted here with his permission.]

Representative John Kline has presented his view of the current nuclear negotiations with Iran (“What we Must See in Any Nuclear Deal with Iran,” [Minneapolis Star Tribune] June 24, 2015). Unfortunately he is misinformed or chooses to ignore basic facts about the Iranian nuclear program.

Representative Kline insists that “Iran must dismantle its nuclear infrastructure.” He ignores the fact that Iran is signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) along with nearly 200 other nations, including the United States. Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea are not signatories. The NPT guarantees all non-nuclear weapons states, including Iran, the “inalienable right” to nuclear energy development. Moreover, it requires the United States to protect that right.

Although the mainstream press and some members of Congress such as Rep. Kline now present Iran’s nuclear program as if it were uniquely threatening, nineteen other non-nuclear-weapons signatories to the NPT have precisely the same or more advanced nuclear infrastructure as Iran, including advanced uranium enrichment, and no one is calling for them to restrict their nuclear activities, even though some, like Japan, have openly said they will manufacture nuclear weapons in the future if they feel the need.

Rep. Kline  further states: “Iran’s nuclear weapons quest must be denied indefinitely.” What quest? Although many now believe that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, there is absolutely no evidence anywhere that such a program did exist, exists today or will exist in the future. The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and even the past four heads of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency all affirm this.

Another demand is that “Inspectors must be permitted unimpeded access to suspect sites.” Under the NPT signatories to the treaty are already required to allow inspections of any site with fissile material, or where fissile material will be introduced within 180 days. The IAEA already enforces this, and has identified every scrap of fissile material currently in Iran. Congressional members like Rep. Kline want a blank warrant to inspect anything and everything in Iran without notification. No nation on earth would agree to this requirement as a matter of national sovereignty.

Those like Rep. Kline who believe that the United States has the upper hand in these negotiations are very wrong. I have just returned from an extensive tour of Iran. The sanctions imposed by the P5+1 nations have not crippled Iran at all. Iran sustained a 3% GDP growth rate last year, higher than the United States. Its internal economy is strong. There are abundant food supplies, and Iran has learned how to circumvent most economic restrictions. Iranians care about the inconvenience of the sanctions, but mostly they long for an end to the estrangement with the United States. It is no secret that the Iranian public loves Americans; anyone American traveling to Iran knows this to be true. Iranians also know that the European partners in the negotiations are very likely to sign the agreement whether the United States does or not. International businessmen and women are flooding Iran today with investment proposals in advance of the talks. They clearly know something that Rep. Kline doesn’t.

Our elected representatives such as Rep. Kline would do well to first inform themselves about the actual parameters of the Vienna talks, and second, to refrain from making excessive demands that aim to torpedo the negotiations. Rapprochement with Iran is inevitable. The only questions are when, and whether the United States is going to be left standing alone with its unrealistic demands and its flawed view.

– William O. Beeman, Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota; website: http://www.williambeeman.com; blog: http://www.wbeeman.com; download publications: https://umn.academia.edu/WilliamOBeeman

See also Prof. Beeman’s comments in the Huffington Post at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/william-o-beeman/


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.


Alzheimers versus Iran

March 10, 2015

No it wasn’t treason. The Constitution defines treason as “levying War against [the United States], or in adhering to their enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

The letter from forty-seven senators addressed to “the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” tells them the obvious – that we have a constitutional system in which they, forty-seven Republican senators, have the numerical strength to prevent adoption of the result of negotiations in any form other than an executive agreement. They apparently believe that the Iranian leadership had to be educated. Of course much of the Iranian leadership was educated, here.[1] The number of Iranians at all levels of government and private life in Iran who have studied in the U.S. is enormous. They know a great deal more about us than we do about them because, God forbid that we should know anything about – them! Horror. We might be corrupted by knowledge. They have no similar fear of us, despite the rhetoric of some of their fools, clearly not reflecting the majority of Iranians. They come here to study because they respect, and actually like most of us. The idea of making a grand bargain is actually attractive in Iran because most of them, in and out of government, want the U.S. on their side.

Why you ask? Because Iran’s strategic position is a big problem – a Shiite country in a sea of Sunni Muslims.[2] Their whole worldview is based on how to deal with their strategic isolation. They want power, even a bomb, not because of Israel – they know that possession of a bomb in this climate would make them more likely to be attacked, not less. They want strength to intimidate their nearer neighbors from aggression. But alliance with the U.S. would be very valuable to them. A grand bargain? If you understand what Iran needs, you’d cut through the nonsensical rhetoric on both sides and realize we could get a lot of benefits from each other, and any capable Administration would understand and strive for it.

So what’s with these senators. Actually it suggests Alzheimer’s. Some of us remember that a different Administration, a few years ago, eliminated Iraq, Iran’s major enemy in the Middle East, as any sort of threat. And then, even though Iran itself almost went to war with the Taliban,[3] that same Administration made a show of not entering into negotiations with Iran, calling it part of the Axis of Evil – self-contradictorily an Axis consisting of mutual enemies. Having messed up big time a decade ago, some are determined that if they messed up, nobody else is going to get it right. Except for the Alzheimer’s patients – they can’t remember the mistakes.

We talked for decades with the Soviets, the Communist Chinese. But not Iran – that’s off limits. The one Middle Eastern country, other than Israel, whose interests often line up with our own, is nevertheless not worth talking to. Have you ever walked into a nursing home filled with Alzheimers patients? Not all, but unfortunately a lot of them are screaming at everyone in sight and listening to no one. They can’t help it. So now we have the perfect Republican strategy – put the Alzheimers ward into the State Department, and voila, no negotiations, no strategy, no planning, no progress, but it doesn’t matter because nobody’s talking.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 10, 2015.

[1] Ishaan Tharoor, Can Iran’s New U.S.-Educated Foreign Minister Mend Ties With Washington? http://world.time.com/2013/08/06/can-irans-new-u-s-educated-foreign-minister-mend-ties-with-washington/; compare Armin Rosen, Why It Doesn’t Really Matter That So Many Iranian Leaders Have Been Educated In The US, http://www.businessinsider.com/does-it-matter-if-irans-leaders-are-us-educated-2014-10#ixzz3TwmKDXlQ.

[2] See Iranian Foreign Policy Since 2001: Alone in the World (Routledge, Thomas Juneau & Sam Razavi eds.,

2013) for excellent analyses of Iranian isolation.

[3] Douglas Jehl, Iran Holds Taliban Responsible for 9 Diplomats’ Deaths, NY Times, September 11, 1998, http://www.nytimes.com/1998/09/11/world/iran-holds-taliban-responsible-for-9-diplomats-deaths.html.


Israel, Iran and American Diplomacy

March 3, 2015

Some people are angry at Israel because they are against Israel. But some of us are angry because we care so much about its survival and think it is being stupid. Popular foreign policy here and everywhere is about waving swords and shooting anyone in their way. It’s a quick and simple solution. But depend too much on the sword and die by the sword.

I’ve been rethinking what’s been going on in the Middle East. Many of us have been assuming that the conflict between Israel and Palestine was central to Middle Eastern policy and events. I have come to realize that the Palestinians have been used mostly as pawns in a very different struggle and it’s very important to understand that.

Radical foreign fighters have shown themselves willing to flock to battles all over the Middle East, except Palestine. They’re in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Palestinians have been kicked out of much of the Middle East. Theirs is not a popular cause. So why does it keep coming up?

Iran supports Hamas and Hezbollah as a way to reduce its isolation in the Sunni world. Iran has no significant beef with Israel. Ahmadinejah scored political points with inflammatory rhetoric but he and much of that rhetoric have been replaced. By seeming to make common cause with Sunnis, however, Iran hopes to make themselves harder to oppose or fight. And by directing aid to groups fighting Israel, it immunizes itself from the reaction to some Shiite forces deep in the Sunni world.

It is not in Iran’s interest to destroy Israel. Opposition to Israel is part of Iran’s foreign policy, protecting its bona fides in the Sunni Arab world. Destroy Israel and they’ll need something else. But let’s be clear – Iran can be a serious existential threat to a stupid Israel. By comparison other threats in their neighborhood are pinpricks.

Notice the opportunity that creates. The US, Iran and Israel all have things to give each other in a true, regional grand bargain. We could reduce Iran’s regional isolation because we have considerable influence with many of the regional players, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc. Iran could contribute to Israel’s safety by backing off its support for Hamas and Hezbollah. And that could make a reliable peace in Palestine possible. Without external support, the Palestinians would not be nearly as threatening to Israel and a two state solution would really be possible.

I don’t mean to imply that it will be easy to get there. There’s a huge history of mistrust on both sides and both sides have good reason to mistrust the other. The nuclear negotiations, themselves difficult and sensitive, could build the mutual confidence necessary for a wider deal. Americans would have to give our leadership the support and confidence needed to work toward that goal, difficult in the face of Republican sabotage before we even know, let alone consider, whether our negotiators have proposed a constructive bargain.

The leadership of all three countries is skittish for ordinary political reasons. All three hold elections. No politician in either country wants to make a mistake on an issue like this. It would be a huge loss if fear of mistakes prevents the effort to reach a settlement of one of the big issues threatening us, Israel, the Palestinians and continually pulling the US into Middle Eastern conflicts.

I don’t have a pipeline to whatever the deal will look like. Nothing is automatic – a lot depends on our diplomacy and pressure. But major improvement is a possible outcome. So as John F. Kennedy famously told us, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 3, 2015.


Guns v. PR in Palestine

October 28, 2014

Whenever I speak about Israel and Palestine, I get angry and anguished letters from both sides. I understand. The world is going to heck in so many ways – growing population, destroying our environment, killing each other – why not have a few dreams about the good life in the Middle East. Dreams are much more fun than reality. Only a few have the strength to look with clear eyes and at both sides.

Perhaps you heard Matty Friedman in On The Media discussing the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.[i] I looked at his very interesting essay and recommend it.[ii] He makes clear some truths that should be self–evident. Read the rest of this entry »


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