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 »


ISL and US Foreign Policy

September 16, 2014

America decided to deal with the Native Americans by war and exile. It took three centuries, as succeeding generations of Indians realized that the White Man would honor no treaty and give them no peace.

Israel has tried since the 1960s to deal with what initially were relatively isolated attacks, by holding every country in the neighborhood responsible, and responding massively to each attack. Six decades later the problem has widened. Unlike the Native Americans, the Palestinians have major allies.

We have repeatedly responded with military force to foreign problems only to see them spin out of control and make things much worse. Read the rest of this entry »


Misunderstanding Iran

August 12, 2014

For the last few days my wife and I attended the semi-annual meeting of the International Society for Iranian Studies. It was held in Montreal this time. Several panels were devoted to Iranian foreign policy. At one of them, scholars outlined Iran’s strategic isolation and the limited choices available to it.

The fourth panelist then launched into a comparison of what she called contextual cultures and textual cultures. I found myself thinking about the textualism of Justice Scalia and the contextualism of his more liberal colleagues. But this speaker’s point was that Iran was a contextual country in which it was the listener’s job to figure out the speaker’s meaning from surrounding circumstances. By contrast, she said, America was a textualist country, where, quoting an old saying, we “say what we mean and mean what we say.” Given that contrast, it was no wonder that we find the Iranians inscrutable and untrustworthy. Read the rest of this entry »


Settler War in Palestine

July 22, 2014

Returning from a meeting of historians, I’ve been thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in historical terms. Israeli settlers in the West Bank are reminiscent of the movement of settlers to our own Indian frontier until the frontier was closed in the twentieth century. Settler conflict with Native Americans over land and atrocities on both sides was continual. This isn’t the whole story but it is important.

Allies are crucial. For a century, Britain prohibited settlement west of the Appalachians and protected Indian rights in the territory they had occupied for millenia, largely preventing Indian War, except, of course, against the French. Regardless of our dispute with King George, aspects of British Indian policy were both wise and decent. Read the rest of this entry »


Nuclear peace, JFK and Iran

November 26, 2013

The deal with Iran is excellent news. Hat’s off to Kerry and Obama.

I’m not Pollyannaish about Iran – its government deprives too many of human rights. Friends spent years in the infamous Evin prison for catching the dislike of Iranian officials. Former president Ahmadinejad’s hostility toward Israel was despicable. The American engineered coup and installation of the Shah in 1953 still rankles there. The attack on our Embassy to keep America out of the 1979 Revolution still rankles here. Since then we have both hurled outrageous rhetoric at each other. None of that makes it easy. Read the rest of this entry »


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