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).

Advertisements

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.


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.

 


The Importance of Learning from Others

November 27, 2018

Americans have been reluctant to accept the importance of studying other countries. We tend to divide them into good and evil and assume that’s all we need to know.

As a teenager I was interested in science and in classical music. For both, I thought it wise to learn some German. But few schools taught it in the wake of World War II. Germans were the enemy.  But two World Wars provided reason enough to study German. President Roosevelt understood how vile and dangerous Hitler was long before Pearl Harbor and took steps to prepare the American military because he could and did read Hitler’s Mein Kampf in the original German.

Americans, however, seem more concerned about being subverted by knowledge of foreign places than by the costs of ignorance. It’s as if many of us have an inferiority complex about our own culture. White racists bask in western European skin color even while screaming America first. America has enormous worldwide influence, but many Americans continue to fear comparison to worldwide knowledge.

From the Napoleonic wars through the Franco-Prussian and two world wars, old World European nations repeatedly attempted world dominance and took a hundred million people to their graves. This country created or supported numerous international institutions to keep Europe at peace, the Soviet Union at bay and level out the boom and bust cycle of international economics, but too many Americans fear those same international institutions as if they were the work of foreign hands designed to subvert us.

The costs of ignorance are serious. Too many American Administrations have treated Saudi Arabia as an ally though it is run as a savage and medieval country, and too many, except for Obama, couldn’t accept talking or negotiating with Iran despite repeated overtures to the U.S. and the fact that they are one of the most westernized, even Americanized, countries in the Middle East. We’ve made similar mistakes trying to control who governs in Central and South America, Vietnam, and other countries. America seemed incapable of appreciating the strategic sense and the long game behind Obama’s attempt to strengthen America’s position in the Far East. It may be too late to recover the ground lost to China.

It’s time to get over our terror of learning about and respecting other peoples. It’s an odd terror for a country made up of so many different peoples. It’s an odd terror for a country in which we can walk out of a bus or train station in cities like New York and enjoy the kindness of strangers who themselves come from all over the world. It’s an odd terror in a country where we talk with taxi drivers about their immigration to and joy at being here. It’s a terror that undermines the benefits of our universally admired university system.

Does one really have to be from somewhere else to appreciate the strengths of our own country? Must appreciating our own country rest on ignorance of others? Or can we trust ourselves to learn about others, to appreciate their strengths as well as faults, to build on and incorporate their accomplishments into our own as we have done in art, literature, music, theatre, dance and so many other arts and sciences, to learn from others as well as from each other as we build our own strengths? Or are we really afraid that recognizing the strengths of others will sap our own?

The internet attributes to many people, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Sam Levenson, a family friend of ours, that we must learn from the mistakes of others because we don’t have time to make them all ourselves. First, however, we need to encourage each other to explore and learn.

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


%d bloggers like this: