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.

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Israel and Palestine – Peace in the Middle East

December 18, 2018

In a pair of recent commentaries, I have addressed the Middle East, and particularly the misperceptions of Saudi Arabia and Iran. I’d like to return to the Middle East but this time in regard to Israel and Palestine. If there is any topic on which hate mail is assured, it is Israel and Palestine. It is also a topic on which many find it difficult to understand or acknowledge any middle ground. Commentary critical of Israel will be misunderstood by many of Israel’s supporters as an attack on its existence. Commentary critical of the Palestinians will be misunderstood by many of their supporters as an attack on their claims to live in the historic territory.

I understand the pain of both sides, but this has reached an outrageous level. I remember speaking with a Palestinian college student who told me that it was OK to kill Israelis but not for Israelis to fight back. Obviously, he was reflecting views that had become widespread among Palestinians. Conversely it seems OK to many Israelis to kill and push Palestinians out of their homes much like European settlers of this country took Indian land in the face of contrary promises. There cannot be peace, Salaam or Shalom, on such terms from either side.

Louis Brandeis, one of our great Supreme Court Justices and also a leader of the international Zionist movement, wrote that for Israel to be valuable it had to be purchased and settled peacefully, [quote] “with clean hands … [so] as to ennoble the Jewish people. Otherwise, it will not be worth having.”[1] [close quote] Unfortunately, the two sides have been at war since 1948. And neither has kept faith with us. They have made numerous promises about stopping settlements or attacks, and then ignored their promises. That is unacceptable. It multiplies the wounds. And it makes America into a faithless partner. Do we only insist that some countries honor their commitments while allowing others to ramble through the house of horrors? Enough.

American presidents have been faced with a quandary. Try to take a middle ground and they will be accused of abandoning Israel. But support Israel unflinchingly and this country loses the respect it has had in the Muslim world, a huge percentage of the people of the globe, and risks new injuries to the people of America. To support either without peace is to condone murder, mayhem and ever more refugees.

For years, diplomats have identified the basic elements of what a deal would have to look like. American presidents could simply refuse any further support, funding, arms or trade to either side that resists or violates the terms of a square deal. Unconditional support of either side invites what we’ve been calling moral hazard, continuing to fight without taking responsibility for the consequences.

If we can’t insist on decent, defensible terms, then we have no business supporting anyone in the Middle East. Out, out America. Let not America’s candle light the way to still more killing and tragedy.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 18, 2018.

[1] Allon Gal, Brandeis, Judaism, and Zionism in Brandeis and America 71 (Lexington, KY: Univ. Press of Kentucky, Nelson L. Dawson, ed. 1989).


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.

 


Bill Beeman, Is Iran the World’s greatest State Sponsor of Terror?

September 24, 2018

Is Iran the World’s greatest State Sponsor of Terror?
Bill Beeman: Iran’s Support of terrorism is less than it seems

This article was originally published in the San Diego Tribune in 2005,
updated by Bill Beeman for publication in the Peace Corps Iran Association Advocacy Bulletin, https://peacecorpsiran.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/2018-09-ADVOCACY-BULLETIN.pdf, and reprinted here with permission from Bill Beeman and the Advocacy Bulletin. Bill’s analysis remains true today:

Of all the accusations leveled against Iran by the United States, the strongest, and least questioned, is the charge that Iran “is the (world’s) most active state sponsor of terrorism,” to quote the U.S. State Department. This claim is both inaccurate and overblown. If the United States ever hopes to influence Iran in other ways, such as persuading Tehran to modify its nuclear program, it must re-examine this long-held article of faith.

The United States government first began to identify Iran as a supporter of terrorist activities in 1984 under the Reagan administration. The accusations grew more strident from year to year. On an annual basis, the State Department has repeated accusations that Iran has supported virtually every terrorist attack in the world.

This is an astonishing exaggeration. In fact, Iran cannot be linked to any direct attack on the United States since the 444-day hostage crisis, which ended in 1981. The assertions of Iran’s continued support for terrorism are prime examples of truth by repetition, used commonly by many conservative commentators, and myriads of U.S. legislators and officials – including former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice,
United Nations Ambassador, Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Of all of these claims, one alone has some substance. Iranian support for the Lebanese Shiite organization Hezbollah is verifiable. However, the flat statement: 9/23/2018 Gmail – September 2018 Peace Corps Iran Advocacy Bulletin https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0?ik=eb7a16298a&view=pt&search=all&permthid=thread-f%3A1612370308135412433%7Cmsg-f%3A161237030813… 6/11 “Iran supports Hezbollah” is simplistic and misleading. It is important to understand the real nature of this support, and the extent to which Iran is actually able to influence the actions of this Shiite Lebanese group. Moreover, it is important to take into consideration the fact that Hezbollah is arguably no longer a terrorist organization, as it could be said to have been 25 years ago.

Iran had an undeniable interest in the fate of the large Shiite community in southern Lebanon following the Revolution of 1978-79. The Lebanese Shiites were under oppression from both Sunnis and Maronite Christians. Moreover, Sunni Palestinian refugees, settled in their midst, both served as a drain on weak local economic resources, and, because of their attacks on Israel, as magnets for violent Israeli retaliation in the region. The Shiites, who were attacked as much as the Palestinians, felt helpless and frustrated, and eventually fought back by forming Hezbollah.

The successful revolution in Iran was enormously inspirational to these Lebanese Shiites, and many Iranians, zealous and excited at their victory over the Pahlavi regime, were looking for ways to spread their revolution. Under these conditions, support for Hezbollah seemed to be virtuous aid for a hapless community of coreligionists under oppression, just as the Iranians had felt themselves to be before the Revolution.

The Iranian central government was weak and scattered after the Revolution. Semi-independent charitable organizations, called bonyads (literally, “foundations”) sponsored by individual Shiite clerics began to help the fledgling Hezbollah organization get off the ground. There was little the Khomeini government could do to curtail these operations without endangering public support for the fledgling Republic, since internal power struggles were endemic.

Syria also had a strong role in the early establishment and sustenance of Hezbollah, and its role was far more practical and self-serving that Iran’s. Indeed, Iranian ideologues could never have had entered to southern Lebanon without Syria’s cooperation.

Now, after nearly two decades, the export of Iranian revolutionary ideology in this loose and uncontrolled manner may have succeeded too well. Hezbollah maintains a stronger commitment to the symbolic legacy of the Iranian Revolution than Iranians themselves. According to Hezbollah expert Daniel Byman, writing recently in Foreign Affairs, ” … (Iran) lacks the means to force a significant change in the (Hezbollah)
movement and its goals. It has no real presence on the ground in Lebanon and a call to disarm or cease resistance would likely cause Hezbollah’s leadership, or at least its most militant elements simply to sever ties with Tehran’s leadership.”

In short, although Iranian religionists were instrumental in aiding its establishment, Hezbollah has now taken on a life of its own. Even if all Iranian financial and logistic support were cut off, Hezbollah would not only continue, it would thrive. Put simply, Iran’s support is not essential for Hezbollah to continue. Byman flatly states that if the United States is really serious about stopping Hezbollah, it would do better to attack
Syria than Iran.

Hezbollah has achieved stability and respectability by becoming as much a social welfare and political organization as a militant resistance organization. According to international relations specialist Dwight J. Simpson, in 2004 it had 12 elected parliamentary members. Moreover many Hezbollah members hold elected positions within local governments. The group had by that time built five hospitals and is building more. It operated 25 primarily secular schools, and provided subsidies to shopkeepers. Its support came primarily from zakat – the charitable “tithe” required of all Muslims – not from Iran.

The Shiites, having seen their co-religionists in Iraq succeed in initial elections there in 2005 have hopes that they too will assume the power in Lebanon that accords with their status as the nation’s largest community. As this happens, Hezbollah will fully cease to be a terrorist group and will gradually assume the role of a political organization. Its “terrorist” activities will be reframed as national defense, especially as they gain control of conventional military forces and weapons.

It should be clear to Americans that the Bush administration is stymied in its dealings with Tehran. The prospect of a direct attack on the Iran to bring about “regime change” is not a practical possibility. In part because of specious accusations such as “the most active state supporter of terrorism” charge, Tehran’s leaders are all but deaf to American politicians. This standoff would begin to change if the United States
would abandon this baseless rhetoric.


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.

 


The Middle East, European Colonialism and the Result of Blank Checks

February 27, 2018

Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of our Nature, argued we’ve become less bloody over the centuries. But so many issues involve life and death. For two weeks this country has been discussing how to stop school shootings. This week let’s address life and death in the Middle East. Next week, events permitting, let’s discuss two issues that threaten life worldwide.

I can count on hate mail whenever I speak about the Middle East. But let’s put some things in perspective.

The world’s refugee problem swamps most countries’ willingness to take people in. Our government wants to restrict immigration and we fight over who and why. Reaction to flows of refugees threaten democratic governments across Europe and contributed to the vote for Brexit. In addition to their own disputes, the American military footprint has aggravated war and population displacement in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine among many countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Stepping back historically and geographically, most countries are dominated by conquering populations. This country conquered and decimated Native Americans to create our bi-coastal America. A succession of warring populations, Huns, Visigoths, Franks, Saxons, Vikings and more, fought for Europe long before the modern wars.

This has hardly been a good way of solving problems or competition for land. But even more harm lurks in the suggestion that we undo it.

The creation of Israel was plainly the result of European refusal to accept its Jewish population. Historically, the Turks in the Ottoman Empire, and the Moors in Spain, before Ferdinand and Isabella Christianized it, were much more hospitable to Jews. The twentieth century brought the fate of the Jews to a head. Europe could have solved its integration problem. But seeing the handwriting on many walls in the 1930s, people like Justice Brandeis, then on the U.S. Supreme Court, were telling friends in Europe to get out quickly. But where to? Franklin Roosevelt, despite close personal and professional relationships with many Jews, blocked boatloads of Jewish refugees from our shores for political reasons.

So the west solved its problem by exporting it – to Palestine. Everyone was a victim in this process. Jewish refugees were uprooted and they in turn uprooted Palestinians. What to do?

At about the same time, Britain was facilitating the breakup of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan. It cost something like a million lives and uprooted many times that. The two countries still find it difficult to get along, but undoing 1948 is not on the table. It cannot be.

It is not true that whatever is, is just. That was proposed by the conservative philosopher Robert Nozick and I most emphatically reject it. But redressing all the wrongs of the past comes at a cost which will involve many who themselves were neither perpetrators nor victims and sometimes both. The argument about who was right and who was wrong in Palestine is not a soluble argument. No one was treated as they should have been. But even more important, fixing those wrongs implies a fight to the death of everyone there. That I cannot wish.

I cannot support complete and utter conquest for either side. We might once have insisted on an enforceable compromise. America once played a role as an honest broker and could have maximized the chance for peace. But we could not continue to play that role while giving Israel a blank check to violate its promises about settlements. The result, I fear, is going to be tragic. It may simply be too late to avert widespread disaster.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 27, 2018.


Making America Puny, or Is the Emperor Naked

January 9, 2018

Trump talks tough. His world strategy seems to go it alone in every context.

  • He antagonized Canada over NAFTA and Mexico over the wall.
  • He antagonized Britain by forwarding Nazi propaganda.
  • He aggravates the international refugee crisis that is roiling Europe.
  • He withdrew from world agreements to combat global warming.
  • He denies that Iran has been living up to its obligations under the Iran nuclear agreement despite the conclusions of international inspection agencies.
  • After screaming about the size of his button, quiet and patient South Korean diplomacy forced Trump to agree to pick up a phone.
  • He withdrew from Asia and the Trans-Pacific alliance and left that part of the world to China’s tender hands.
  • He abandoned an international consensus over the status of Jerusalem. Israel has demanded a great deal from us, including the antagonism of the world’s billion Muslims. But nothing is too much.
  • He doesn’t like the UN or our support of it even though it has made this country central to international everything. But who needs everything?

Tough, tough, tough, he’s talks tough alright, but he is increasingly alone. Some Americans like to say we are number one. But with mounting disputes and fewer allies, are we more than a lone tough in a bar brawl?

If we are irrelevant to the free world, who’ll care what happens to us? If our policies undermine the free world, who will come to our defense? If our only friends are strongmen who repress their own people, will they turn on us whenever it suits them? Antagonizing the world, risks being swamped by a hostile world. This is not the America of George Washington which could avoid entangling alliances while protected by the enormity of the oceans. The oceans are puny now that tiny North Korea can aim across them.

True military power is based on industrial might, not exports or raw materials. You could read the emergence of Germany and America in industrial statistics before they became world powers. But Trump hasn’t yet brought himself to support investments that would strengthen industrial power at home, like new and renovated infrastructure, science and education. Expanding coal mining and gas pumping, of which we already produce plenty, serve the world market, not industrial power at home, while American industries have begun a massive shift to other sources of energy. Oil and gas have been staples of weak third-world nations that have descended into catacombs of corruption – much as we have been doing – corruption spurred worldwide by extractive industries.

True world power is a combination of industrial, military and moral power. It requires leadership, engagement and understanding of the complexities of other nations’ needs and values. The alternative is a war against all in which America, no matter how much it claims, can and will be swamped by a hostile world. Trump’s bluster exposes our weakness, not our strength.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 9, 2018.

 

 


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