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.

 

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War and the Sources of Fake News

June 25, 2019

The president would have us believe that anything critical of him is fake. To which many respond that everything out of the president’s mouth (or twitter feed) is fake. Both statements, of course, are false.

Everyone makes mistakes but deliberately faked news often has government hands all over it. One American Administration took us into Vietnam based on lies about what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin, which were revealed when government reports were finally declassified. Another took us into Iraq on the basis of cooked evidence about weapons of mass destruction.

Teaching free speech, I don’t compare truth and falsity – there are enough screw-ups to go around. I compare whether there is better information when the press can act as watchdog or when we are forced into total reliance on official pronouncements. Around the world the answer is obvious. Here the answer is clouded by our attachments to our favorite politicians. But the so-called classification system is designed to feed us cooked evidence when an Administration thinks we can’t deal with truth. Of course, some secrets are kept for reasons of national security or diplomatic reasons, but much is protected only for political reasons. All Administrations convince themselves that it’s good for America that they keep secrets or that they deliberately mislead us. We simply have to assume that even our own government lies to us regularly, sometimes convinced that it’s good for us and often convinced that distortions are good for themselves.

That’s why the press matters. No person or institution can understand everything or get everything right.  Even Einstein didn’t although I certainly like his batting average. But only by examining conflicting evidence do we have some hope of teasing out what we need to know.

John Stuart Mill gave us our basic understanding of free speech and press, teaching that public officials have reasons to mislead: for reelection, to enlarge their own power, to get what they want done, to protect themselves or their beliefs, etc. His point was human fallibility coupled with power to throttle everyone else spells a high likelihood of official gobbledygook masquerading as truth. Worse, official censorship blocks the press from digging and correcting as many important stories as possible. Science, by contrast, is designed to keep challenging mistakes and getting better answers. A free press, too, can keep improving answers.

Go back to the examples I made at the head of this essay. The press made lots of mistakes about Vietnam, Iraq, and elsewhere. But the most damaging mistakes resulted from intentional government newsfeeds designed to mislead. We eventually learned the truth about those and many other cases because reporters kept pushing for more and better information.

Unfortunately I’ve learned over many years not to trust our presidents – they have too many reasons to mislead us that seem good to them. I think Trump is worse than most – he so often misstates the facts that I never trust him. Conservative commentator Bret Stephens wrote, “the Trump administration has credibility issues, to put it mildly, which is one reason why electing a compulsive prevaricator to the presidency is dangerous to national security.” On the other hand, many other presidents have told the truth just often enough that we become gullible when they really want to mislead us.

There’s no way to know what the situation will be between the U.S. and Iran by the time this is broadcast.  But too many lives are at stake; too much depends on figuring out what information is accurate, who is telling the truth and who isn’t, let alone whether it justifies killing both Iranians and Americans. Let there be no war.


The AUMF and War in the Middle East

June 18, 2019

Among the problems with the outdated Authorizations for the Use of Military Force are the countries trying to get Uncle Sam to fight their wars, the difficulty in telling who did what, and in knowing what even our own Administration is up to. Remember that one American Administration took us into Vietnam on the basis of attacks on American military vessels that never happened, and another Administration took us into Iraq on the basis of similarly cooked evidence.

Nor is it easy to tell what the current Administration is doing. The Administration tells us it is confronting Russia by implanting weapons in their power grids.[1] But Trump Administration officials warned the former secretary of Homeland Security not to bring up its efforts to confront Russian interference with upcoming American elections.[2] Are we facing them or bowing to them? As Bret Stephens put it, “the Trump administration has credibility issues, to put it mildly, which is one reason why electing a compulsive prevaricator to the presidency is dangerous to national security.”[3]

Should we support the Administration’s warlike stance toward Iran, on the assumption that we have accurate information that Iran torpedoed two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, including one that is Japanese owned, or should we believe the Japanese that the ships were attacked “by a ‘flying object’” from the air, not torpedoes in the water?[4] Is the best comparison the cooked attack in the Gulf of Tonkin in the Johnson Administration or the cooked claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in the George W. Bush Administration?[5]

And what is all this for? Trump says he wants to stop Iran from going nuclear but Obama had already done that for the foreseeable future. Trump instead released Iran from its obligations under the nuclear agreement. The difference seems to be that Trump wants the credit. But he keeps threatening Iran and getting mad when they don’t lie down and play dead. Worse, Iran is disciplined and intelligent enough to find ways to fight back. Trump seems to figure that Iran alone has no right to fight back, though that way of thinking is likely to involve us in a totally unnecessary war, unnecessary because the agreement he terminated did a pretty good job.

The fist pumping and showing off of military hardware is supposed to make Trump look tough, but it risks the lives of American men and women, not to protect America, but to protect Trump’s reputation, whether as tough guy or as bully depending on whom you ask.

American lives should not be spent in the Middle East. There’s little evidence that we can do any good. Its oil is no longer important and would be better left in the ground. It’s run by a bunch of petty dictators, most of whom would fade into insignificance without American aid and involvement. Moreover, by comparison to most countries in the Middle East, Iran has a relatively stable democratic system. Iran’s clerics have certainly imposed limits but nevertheless the people have a major voice in the choice of the Prime Minister and the legislature. Let Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states fight their own battles.

Meanwhile, I completely agree with Paul Barker, another former Peace Corps Volunteer who served this country in Iran, like I did, and who wrote the LA Times that before this Administration “leads the U.S. into yet another disastrous war, our lawmakers must repeal the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force and secure the passage of the Prevention of Unconstitutional War with Iran Act. The U.S. can ill afford to stumble into yet another forever war in the Mideast.”[6]

[1] David E. Sanger and Nicole Perlroth, U.S. Escalates Online Attacks on Russia’s Power Grid, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/15/us/politics/trump-cyber-russia-grid.html.

[2] Eric SchmittDavid E. Sanger and Maggie Haberman, In Push for 2020 Election Security, Top Official Was Warned: Don’t Tell Trump, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/24/us/politics/russia-2020-election-trump.html?action=click&module=RelatedCoverage&pgtype=Article&region=Footer.

[3] Bret Stephens, The Pirates of Tehran: If Iran won’t change its behavior, we should sink its navy, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/14/opinion/iran-oil-tanker-attack.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage.

[4] Eliot Higgins, Was Iran Behind the Oman Tanker Attacks? A Look at the Evidence, June 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/14/opinion/iran-tanker-attacks.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article.

[5] Id.

[6] Paul Barker to the LA Times, , 5/18/19.


Iran and the US

May 14, 2019

I can’t update the news from the Persian Gulf except to express my skepticism. I intended to go behind the news to look at Iranian and American views of each other. I still think that’s useful.

Problems between our countries are vestiges of nineteenth and early twentieth century colonialism which gave the west control over Iranian oil fields. In the 1950s, Prime Minister Mossadegh was unwilling to continue that relationship. This country replaced him with the Shah largely over oil, creating a relationship that hurt Iranian pride..

Iran also shared a border with the former Soviet Union and there had been military conflict between them. Mossadegh, sought peaceful coexistence with the U.S.S.R. Although his behavior was similar to other unaligned leaders like Tito in Yugoslavia, this country refused to show him the same respect.

After its Revolution, with its present combination of an elected legislature and clerical Guardian Council, the U.S. spent decades trying to isolate Iran, despite Iranian overtures to negotiate all our differences. Needing alliances outside our sphere of influence, Iran maintained alliances with conservative Middle Eastern religions. Of course that makes them seem even worse to us.

Obama’s willingness to show respect for Iranian sovereignty and not treat them like an American client, was crucial to his ability to reach a deal over nuclear fuel. Obama believed a fundamental mistake of American Middle Eastern policy has been the belief that we could and should control it for purposes that have had little to do with American security.

But this Administration believes it gets support at home by flexing its muscles along with threats and insults. As Reese Erlich put it, “To assert U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, Washington must have a truly evil enemy to combat. Mad mullahs with nukes fit the bill.”[i] The story they’ve been telling looks as far from reality as the Bush-Cheney story of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

What does Trump’s America look like to Iran?

Despite our warships, Iran has good reason to think we’re weak. American alliances are in shambles and US trading preeminence is over. One-on-one trade deals maximize US power over weak countries but it sours relations with others. Our sanctions against Iran foul the economies of countries that used to be our friends. Equally important, another war in the Middle East would weaken us in parts of the world, like the Far East, where our interests are truly being challenged.

For our traditional European allies, Trump’s bizarre affection for dictators, is a turn off and a warning sign. And it encourages the militarization of countries like Turkey which used to be part of the peaceful, human rights respecting, democratic countries of NATO and the E.U.

So across the globe, including hotspots, like Turkey, North Korea, and Iran, it now seems that American agreements can’t be trusted. That gives them a reason to seek, not avoid, nuclear arms, because without them, they would be as vulnerable to American conquest as Iraq was. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Iran threatened to enrich their nuclear materials beyond what they need for peaceful uses. That, of course, is counter-productive for America, although they are a lot further from building a weapon than this Administration would have you believe.

And it must seem to Muslims that we are supporting 21st century crusades through US threats, client dictators and carte blanche to Israel.

As for breaking news from the Gulf, we have learned from Vietnam and Iraq, that our government does not always tell us the truth. Sadly, this president is no paragon of honesty. And after the Kashoggi affair, it is clear that Saudi Arabia and its allies are less than trustworthy. So I believe the best analogy for what’s going on, is what went on, in Iraq.

 – This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 14, 2019


[i] The Iran Agenda Today, 45 (2019).


U.S.-Iran Relations – the Atlantic Council Meeting on the Anniversary of the Iranian Revolution

February 19, 2019

A few days ago, I came back from a meeting at the Atlantic Council in Washington on the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution.

Speakers laid out how Iranians see their own position in the world. The “terribly bloody cataclysm” of the Iran-Iraq war was crucial. Estimates vary, but the Iraqi invasion of Iran cost hundreds of thousands of lives in the 1980s.  That made clear to Iran the danger of powerful nearby states. The rise of ISIS on the ashes of Iraq made equally clear the danger of non-state actors and the danger that weakened states can’t control terrorist groups. Those are national security problems, not ideological issues. As Ariane Tabatabai put it:

Iran sought to adjust its policy to balance two oft-conflicting objectives: Undermining central governments to ensure none would become strong enough to pose a threat to Iran while also striving to prevent them from collapsing and creating fertile grounds for terrorists.

While Iraq was strong, their common enmity against Iraq united Israel and Iran. But once Iraq was defeated, the two countries began to see each other as the only states in the region capable of an existential threat to themselves.

The U.S. also became unreliable. As John Limbert, a career American diplomat and former hostage, describes:

In the last hundred years, for Iranians, the United States has gone from friend to puppet master to enemy and scapegoat. In Iranians’ century-long struggle for dignity and independence, Americans were originally on the right side…support[ing] Iran’s constitutional movement, and…help[ing] Iran preserve its independence against…the Soviet Union….[Not long after, however, the U.S. developed] an unhealthy patron-client relationship with the repressive Pahlavi monarchy.

In the more recent past, the U.S. sided with Iraq against Iran in the war between the two, excluded Iran from regional conferences and imposed sanctions, all of which increased Iranians’ concern for their own national security.

Iran, of course, played a role in the breakdown of relations. But diplomats try to push irritants and misunderstandings aside in order to make more fruitful relations possible, unless, of course, the game is to have an enemy for use as a bogey-man with which to threaten the population for the rulers’ interests, not the public’s. Even after a succession of presidents refused to engage with Iran, Obama showed that it could still be done.

Trump claims to be a great negotiator. But his tools appear limited to threats, sanctions and name-calling. That can be effective in limited circumstances, for a bargain over a single event, where prospects for future relations or reactions in countries looking on don’t matter. But others now realize that they can’t trust the U.S. to look past short-term advantage and build for a stronger future by playing what diplomats call the long game. Playing the tough instead, Trump encourages a backlash. Focusing on the short-term and ignoring the long game, he encourages others to plan without us – and against our interests. Making Iran feel less secure, he makes it more determined to rely on its own arsenal of weapons, heightening the danger to Israel and other allies.

Good negotiators figure out what other negotiating partners need. They develop win-win deals for long term and fruitful relations. Negotiations that don’t work that way push everyone to find ways out, ways to take advantage of each other. Rewards can be much greater when negotiators negotiate for mutual advantage.

In dealing with Iran, Trump looks for short-term advantage and long-term hostility. He will surely get it and we will pay the price.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 19, 2019.


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.

 

 


The Bush Middle East

December 4, 2018

George H.W. Bush, our 41st president, put together a coalition to turn Saddam’s Iraq back from its invasion of Kuwait. He wanted the cover of a Muslim, Middle Eastern force joining in that invasion. He promised many of the countries involved that he would go no further than the Kuwaiti border that Saddam had crossed. In retrospect, that decision postponed the bloodbath that Iraq eventually became. But skilled as he was, President Bush couldn’t avoid the curse of unintended consequences. American use of a Saudi airfield was enough to anger bin Laden and al Qaeda. Hence the first attack on the World Trade Center took place under Clinton, between the presidencies of the two Bushes.

Bush excluded Iran from the “coalition of the willing” with which he invaded Iraq. In a book on Iranian foreign policy, subtitled Alone in the World, Thomas Juneau, Sam Razavi, and several colleagues explain that Iran lives amongst considerable dangers and hostilities. Four regional nuclear powers, India, Israel, Pakistan and Russia surround Iran. Religion, ideology, and other fears and jealousies divided Iran from its neighbors. And it has been excluded from regional security arrangements like the Gulf Cooperation Council, all of whose members are on the opposite side of the Persian Gulf. Thus, Iran has been in a precarious position which it has tried to meliorate with diplomacy, a strong military and support for the Palestinians.

In those circumstances Iran and Israel have reason to unite against the Arab states that have repeatedly gone to war against Israel and lose no love for Iran. But the wars against Iraq under the two Bush presidents had enormous impact on the Middle East. They left Iran the major local power, which spurred regional realignments. Specifically, Israel and Saudi Arabia no longer needed Iran’s support against Iraq. Instead, their fears transferred to Iran. As Trita Parsi describes in Losing an Enemy, a country’s natural enemy in balance of power politics is the biggest power in the region that could pose an existential threat. Once Iraq was disposed of, both countries wanted American support against Iran. Even though Iran had supported the Palestinians, it’s support had not been a major factor and, before the defeat of Iraq, Israel was telling the American state department to ignore the public fulminations of Ahmadinejad; despite him, Israel told the state department that Iran was fundamentally friendly! That may be a big surprise on this side of the Atlantic, but countries learn to distinguish the fundamentals from what they each have to do for diplomatic reasons.

I commented last week that Iran has been one of the most westernized countries in the Middle East. Despite the Guardian Council, public support for democratic institutions has a long history in Iran. Theirs is a mixed system, both clerical and popular. And the harsh language of some of the clerics has been a reaction to the fact that the Iranian people have been very much influenced by American culture. Despite the conflict between popular and clerical preferences, the people have no taste for another revolution. The result is that Iran has been one of the most stable countries in the Middle East.

That may not be the Middle East that the two Bushes envisioned. But Obama understood that agreements with Iran were possible in the current state of affairs. If we could cool down the fears and enmities involving Iran, Obama expected that he could turn his attention to Asia, which he viewed as the much larger problem. Unlike the small Middle Eastern countries, China is an existential threat to the U.S. on the world stage, and that’s where Obama wanted to put his, and America’s, energies.

Pity that Trump neither knew nor cared. That opportunity may be gone.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 4, 2018.

 


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