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).

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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.

 


Saudi Arabia

October 29, 2018

To understand what happened, we should generally begin with very open-ended questions in order to avoid excluding crucial areas of investigation. Gradually, one focuses on hypotheses. A hypothesis is not a fact. It is a basis for fact-checking.

Think back to 9/11. The very idea of Saudi complicity got short shrift. We noticed that there were Saudis in the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the middle of Pennsylvania. But a number of Saudis were immediately allowed to leave the U.S. by air, even while other planes were grounded. The 9/11 Commission noted that charities sponsored by the Saudi government probably funded the attacks. But then the connection largely disappeared from public view and the focus turned to Osama bin Laden. That’s not a great recipe for finding out what happened. The hypothesis was too narrow at the start – Saudi Arabia, friend; Osama bin Laden, enemy.

It’s past time to investigate the assumption that Saudi Arabia was a friend. Saudi Arabia was selling us oil and we were selling them arms. But commercial transactions don’t automatically create friends. They do encourage friendly manners in order not to roil negotiations. And they create motives to avoid antagonism which might ruin commercial arrangements. But there can also be contrary motives. In spite of the benefits of the commercial arrangements between the Saudis and the U.S., were there reasons that the Saudis might have been inclined to attack and incinerate thousands of people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, especially if the Saudi connection could be hidden and denied?

Think about the changes in the Middle East following the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. went to war and hasn’t yet extricated itself. Our defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq eliminated a large commercial competitor of the Saudis. It meant the Saudis might be able to pump much more oil without lowering its price. It could also make the Saudis seem much more important to the U.S. once Iraq had been eliminated as a major Middle Eastern player. And if America could then be convinced that Iran had become the major Middle Eastern antagonist to the U.S., then Saudi Arabia could use this country to take out a second of its major competitors. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the French Foreign Minister in 2010, the Saudis want to “fight the Iranians to the last American.” Middle East politics can be very complex and deceptive.

I don’t know whether the Saudis conspired to bring that about by attacking the U.S. My point is a more limited one. It is not beyond possibility that Saudi Arabia had motives to inflict a powerful terrorist attack on this country in order to get the U.S. to do its military bidding for them. That certainly doesn’t exclude the vicious role of Osama bin Laden. It means he could have been used by the Saudis for their own purposes. And, in all likelihood, he could have been stopped by the Saudis if they had wanted to.

The current occupant of the White House told us he is not interested in exploring the Saudi impact on American security at the cost of his and the country’s commercial relations with Saudi Arabia. But once you realize the extent of the deceit and manipulation practiced by Middle Eastern dictators, why in God’s name would this country want to supply them with a single round of ammunition, much less sophisticated weapons systems, bombers and fighter airplanes, before we can be much more certain of what Saudi Arabia is and has been up to? And it also makes sense to look much more skeptically at the things we have been certain of. Is Iran, which historically had quite good relations with Israel, really the major problem, or have the Saudis been stoking enmity toward Iran in order to make Saudi Arabia the major player in the Middle East?

I don’t know. I’m not writing a text. I’m asking a question, one which lawsuits are still exploring. It hasn’t yet been satisfactorily addressed, and it should be.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 23, 2018.

 

 


Drumbeat for More Middle East Chaos

September 25, 2018

The Ahvaz National Resistance took responsibility for an attack on a crowd watching a parade in southwest Iran over the weekend. National Security Advisor John Bolton had urged that the U.S. assist and encourage that very group. So, when Iranian President Rouhani pointed the finger at the United States, should we ignore it as nonsense from “the axis of evil” or should we take seriously the possibility that the U.S. condoned or supported the attack? Or that Saudi Arabia helped out, with American knowledge and support?

Are these deadly games conducted by people confident that the price will be paid by everyone else, soldiers and civilians, other than themselves? It certainly has all the earmarks of Middle East hawks who want to do what they did in Iraq while hoping the war would come out differently.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the French Foreign Minister in 2010 that the Saudis want to “fight the Iranians to the last American.”  With a clear understanding of the politics of the Middle East, Obama refused to be drawn in. But for Trump, war would unleash patriotic fervor that might improve his approval ratings. He will not be the first president to sacrifice American and other lives to benefit his reputation, behavior that is criminal and may be treasonous.

Trita Parsi is a Swedish Middle Eastern expert whose family left Iran as refugees when Parsi was four. He now lives in America. Parsi has written an excellent analysis of what is happening in the MiddleEastEye. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have been putting pressure on the US to bomb Iran for decades. They are now saying they will take the battle inside Iran but without the military ability to do it – they haven’t even been able to defeat the Houthis. Their real objective is to bring America into the fight, perhaps by triggering retaliation that would force this country to defend our so-called allies. Saudi Arabia has been the Middle East’s major trouble maker. Its fingerprints were all over the 9/11 attacks.

The Trump Administration is likely complicit. The day before the attacks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “told the Islamic Republic of Iran that using a proxy force to attack an American interest will not prevent us from responding against the prime actor.” In other words, without evidence, he is already blaming Iran for something it hasn’t done. This is reminiscent of the run up to the war in Iraq. That war to eliminate nonexistent weapons of mass destruction did a great deal of damage, unnecessarily killing American soldiers and civilians in the Middle East, unsettling the area and, instead of shutting down terrorism, laying the area open to ISIS and other terrorist groups. Facts matter. The evidence wasn’t there, and, in reality, the war did more harm than good.

A year ago, Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton laid out a plan for working with Saudi Arabia and Israel to pull out of the nuclear agreement with Iran and other nations and develop a more a warlike policy toward Iran, despite the international inspectors’ continued reports that Iran was complying with the restrictions in the nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA. Parsi writes that “The Trump administration’s Iran policy is following the Bolton memo almost point by point.” Bolton urged the U.S. to assist and encourage a number of groups inside Iran, including the Ahvaz National Resistance, to fight to overturn the government of Iran. In its saner moments, the American government treated some of the groups Bolton wanted to fund as terrorists, including the same group that claimed responsibility for the recent attack in Ahwaz. That puts U.S. fingerprints on the drumbeat for war.

Parsi explains:

For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, this makes strategic sense. Their ability to compete with the much larger and more cohesive Iranian state in the long run is highly questionable.

Their simple solution is to get the U.S. to fight their competitor. They can’t but we can. For good measure Trump wants Iran to pay reparations for 9/11 despite the absence of evidence of their involvement and in the face of evidence of Saudi involvement.

The Trump Administration is trying to work us up with fake claims, fake blame, fake purposes – all for the faked glory of Trump.

Instead of protecting America, this president is working to injure it for his own benefit.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran. This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Sept. 25, 2018.


Realism in Foreign Policy

May 29, 2018

May I have the luxury of going back to basics?

It’s important to understand the different dynamics of foreign policy. Countries often see foreign affairs through the lens of the balance of power. If the balance gets out of whack, conquest is likely, further upsetting a regional balance.

Balance of power thinking can be important but we often miss the complexities. Seeing communist states only as Red blinded us to the hostilities between Vietnam and its larger neighbors. Whether or not we could have defeated Vietnam, we never had to fight them to protect our own interests. In fact, the war in Vietnam was a great gift to China much as the war in Iraq was a gift to Iran.

Before the first Gulf War, Iran and Iraq balanced each other in the region. And Iran and Israel had a decent working relationship. It was true that Ahmadinejad said some hateful things, but both countries understood that public language between countries often had little to do with their actual policies. In that case, Shi’a Iran was trying to suppress the potential enmity between it and its Sunni neighbors. But that was largely confined to talk.

When the U.S. defeated Iraq, it upset the regional balance of power in Iran’s favor. Israel then surprised everyone by screaming about the danger of Iran. Cooperation no longer mattered. Iran was large, without significant local enemies. And Israel wanted the U.S. to need Israel as its regional agent. Friendship between Iran and the U.S. made Israel less important. Woops. For all its bluster, that made Israel feel both vulnerable and reckless. Ironically, power is often greatest before it’s exercised, and Iran’s clerics actually had a broader view of Iranian interests, but the U.S. refused to discuss it with them.

Ideological rivalry was the major dynamic of the cold war. We built radio towers and beamed broadcasts into the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Unscrupulous politicians can use ideological and ethnic divides to stir up trouble. Ideological unity can hold people together. But like the balance of power, ideological unity is fragile, and keeps changing. In the Middle East, before Trump, we largely tried to balance the ideological power of Islam with a commitment to democratic revolution and to Israel. But we’ve always limited our commitment to democracy by our own economic preferences, leading others to perceive us as hypocritical.

The European Union reflected a third approach. France and Germany fought a succession of brutal wars culminating in World War II in which France was overrun and which made refugees of a large portion of the continental population. In response, after the war, statemen in Europe brought the two countries and others in Europe together in a customs union which united former adversaries and built a sense of unity among them. The E.U. gave America the blessing of a powerful ally plus the freedom not to worry about divisions among the countries of western Europe. A declining E. U. also weakens American power.

Rock, paper, scissors? Nothing is pure or stable. Thinking about foreign affairs in terms of a single demand, issue or policy while ignoring everything else is equivalent to an infant’s temper tantrum. Thinking about Iran as if all we need to know is its clerical ideology, as if that can be simplistically defined as an axis of evil, is an invitation to disaster.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 15, 2018.

 


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