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.

 


How to think about Iran

July 8, 2019

People simplify countries into good and bad, leading us to bluster about military options, and overlook better ways to get things done.

It seems required that all discussions of Iran begin with statements about lack of trust and the badness of what they are doing. But goodness and badness aren’t genes baked into each country’s DNA. Despite American complaints about Iranian government, Iran waited a year after this country reneged on the multi-national nuclear agreement before acting in conflict with its no-longer application terms. They were not, in this case, untrustworthy.

Much of the Iranian population is very westernized. Despite some of the leadership’s language, Iran is not a country of America haters, or nearly as authoritarian as much of the Middle East. Iranians have been voting for decades except when our country dislodged their democratically selected leader and substituted the Shah. Iranians don’t have as much power as they want but they have a great deal more than most of the people of the region. Until the current occupant of the White House took over, they pushed their leadership in our direction.

We’d benefit from thinking about the Middle East and Iran differently. Iraq and Iran fought a war that cost at least half a million lives, with two or three times that many casualties. American defeat of Iraq removed any Iraqi threat to Iran and made Iran more powerful, which many here regret.

But also, Israel and Iran were cooperating before the U.S.-Iraq wars. The enemy of my enemy is my friend and Iraq was their common enemy. So after we defeated Iraq, Iran and Israel saw each other as the most dangerous countries in the region, leaving Iran facing Israel and Saudi Arabia in the new Middle East.

Saudis aren’t angels. They’re decades behind Iran in their treatment of women and have caused us much more trouble. Saudi support for militant Wahhabi Islam brought 9/11 about, produced Osama bin Ladan, al Qaeda and led to the war in Afghanistan, and Saudi Wahhabi schools are radicalizing the Islamic world. Our alliance with Saudi Arabia has been very costly.

So assuming we suffer the pain and cost of defeating Iran, which countries would drive the new Middle East: Israel, Saudi Arabia or Turkey? The longstanding working relationships between Iran and Turkey have helped stabilize both. Turkey is now playing East and West against each other. It seeks entry into the EU while becoming increasingly authoritarian. If Iran were defeated, would Turkey draw closer to the west, to Sunni Islamic countries or would Turkey be more vulnerable to the Russian bear? The answer isn’t obvious. A defeated Iran would be in chaos, and the risks that could pose to all countries in the area as well as ourselves could be very severe. In other words, war is not an independent decision without understanding or controlling the aftermath.

Defeating Iran may only solidify our reputation as the world’s most warlike country. Plus, demonizing Iran is diverting us from China’s threat to the security of other countries in the Far East. If those countries lose confidence in American support, the world balance of power could change in an instant. How to make America puny again.


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.


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.

 


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