IRAN, the Nuclear Agreement and Donald Trump

May 8, 2018

America sees itself as altruistic and believes we should be trusted because we proved it in World War II. But, in 1953, Americans in the Embassy in Tehran helped engineer a coup d’état against the democratically selected Prime Minister of Iran. Persians admired us for our power but hated what we had done.

Americans did not understand that history when, during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Persians stormed the Embassy and made hostages of the staff. That breached international law and was very hurtful for those involved but it was brought on by the memory that the earlier coup was managed from the Embassy. Now we both had reason to hate each other.

But the subsequent history is more interesting than the popular stereotypes. Diplomatic relations and even cooperation between Iran and Israel as well as major trade ( including Iran supplying oil in exchange for Israeli weapons and ballistic missile technology) lasted long after the Islamic Revolution and persisted despite Ahmadinejad’s hateful rhetoric. America and Iran continued cooperating about many Middle Eastern issues despite the effort of a succession of American presidents to isolate Iran.

Isolation threatened Iran. The religious division of the Middle East between the Shia, principally in Iran, and the Sunni, dominant everywhere else, provide opportunities for politicians to whip up animosities when it suits their purposes – much as Trump has whipped up animosities over racial differences and guns to dangerous levels. To stay on good terms with most of its neighbors, Iran supported Sunni positions on Palestine.

America stood back while Iran and Iraq fought a brutal war in the 1980s but then defeated Iraq under Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush. Since Iraq had been Iran’s major antagonist, its defeat at the hands of the U.S. was a great gift to Iran and destabilized the power relations in the Middle East. Meanwhile Iran continued seeking rapprochement with the U.S. and offered to be helpful to the U.S. in our conflicts in the area, but no president was willing to talk until Obama. Obama had larger goals, to get Middle Eastern disputes out of the way while addressing problems in Asia.

Trump’s current effort to scuttle the multi-power agreement with Iran plays out stereotypes while sending terrible signals with ominous consequences:

  • Since US intelligence and military leaders and every involved head of state except the current U.S. President thinks Iran obeyed the terms of the agreement, what could count as obedience?
  • If obedience to the terms of the agreement doesn’t count, why should any country reach agreements with the U.S.?
  • If the U.S. terminates agreements at will, what is the value of diplomacy?
  • If the U.S. rides roughshod over non-nuclear countries, then nations need a nuclear capacity to hold us off.
  • And if diplomacy with the U.S. is a sterile enterprise, is war better? The origin of the Joint Agreement was European concern over the possibility of yet another war in the Middle East. Are we back to that?

Iran has become an American boogey-man, and too many think we look weak if we even talk with them. Israel’s concern has been to avoid letting any other country play a significant role in American thinking about the Middle East. That’s a recipe for trouble. It substitutes pure power for diplomacy and respectful negotiation. In fact, Iran has been anything but a loose cannon and has shown both the capacity and the willingness to resolve conflicts among us, provided that Iran be consulted and treated respectfully regarding Middle Eastern events. Only in a respectful climate can Iran play the constructive role we claim to want.

But Donald Trump wants an enemy for the political benefits. Risking the lives and safety of American and other men, women and children so Trump can look tough is a cynical abuse of his office. And if it misfires, we’ll be counting more body bags and amputees.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 8, 2018.

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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.


Sticking with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear agreement

December 5, 2017

JOPAC was the multi-national 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the Iran nuclear agreement. I’m happy to say that I’ve never been closer to nuclear weapons than listening to my chemistry professor, himself part of the Manhattan Project that created the first A-bomb, talking about them. My cousin Mimi worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory but all she could tell me was that she was there. Happily she lived into her 90s. But I have had some experience in Iran.

I was teaching at Pahlavi University, now called something else. Someone was sent to oversee the University. We were all warned to stay away from him. He wasn’t trustworthy. But this brash yours truly thought he knew better so I called on him. He was an economist. I had an article about the difference between Iranian and Turkish economic success to show him. He was of course interested.

Suddenly no one would talk with me. Not a word. I finally cornered someone and insisted he tell me why. He accused me of having called all Iranians liars. I remembered that on the first page of the article, Harvard Prof. David McClelland, with whom I had corresponded, criticized vague and unscientific statements about Iran like “All Iranians are liars.” McClelland set out to study Iran much more precisely. The young man I had cornered had good enough English that he understood exactly what had happened. All of a sudden people talked to me again – as if nothing had ever happened.

Would it have been better if I’d followed orders? Probably but it didn’t hurt that I had exposed the distortion of what I had said. Just as clearly, lots of people there took truth seriously.

Iran is a negotiating culture. You negotiate over everything, from carpets to the seams in a coat you’re having made. When I was getting ready to leave, I sat down with a Persian friend to sell him some of my record collection. He assumed I wouldn’t negotiate but would name fixed prices. I assumed he would negotiate so I asked for more than I wanted. When I realized what had happened, I reverted and gave him the records for much less than we’d agreed. Neither of us wanted to take advantage of the other. But if he’d negotiated as expected, I would never have thought him a liar. It’s just about conforming to culture and how things are done.

The Peace Corps Iran Association, or PCIA, composed of people like myself who served over there, has taken the position that “the Iran nuclear agreement [was a] historic and … excellent example of the success of diplomacy to resolve a major, contentious issue that threatened regional and world peace. As has been certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency … tasked … in the agreement to monitor and verify Iran’s compliance … Iran is abiding by the agreement. United States security agencies have confirmed the IAEA assessment.”

PCIA “urges the United States and Iran, along with the other parties to the agreement, to continue to uphold and abide by the agreement and to take no action that would violate the agreement.” PCIA concluded that both the United States and Iran should keep their word. Incidentally, Ambassador John Limbert, who was one of the U.S. Embassy hostages held for a year and a half, instead of being filled with bitterness and reaching cavalier conclusions about the country, told us at a recent conference of former Peace Corps Volunteers who served there, that he too, urges that we stay the course.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 5, 2017.

 

 


Alzheimers versus Iran

March 10, 2015

No it wasn’t treason. The Constitution defines treason as “levying War against [the United States], or in adhering to their enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

The letter from forty-seven senators addressed to “the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” tells them the obvious – that we have a constitutional system in which they, forty-seven Republican senators, have the numerical strength to prevent adoption of the result of negotiations in any form other than an executive agreement. They apparently believe that the Iranian leadership had to be educated. Of course much of the Iranian leadership was educated, here.[1] The number of Iranians at all levels of government and private life in Iran who have studied in the U.S. is enormous. They know a great deal more about us than we do about them because, God forbid that we should know anything about – them! Horror. We might be corrupted by knowledge. They have no similar fear of us, despite the rhetoric of some of their fools, clearly not reflecting the majority of Iranians. They come here to study because they respect, and actually like most of us. The idea of making a grand bargain is actually attractive in Iran because most of them, in and out of government, want the U.S. on their side.

Why you ask? Because Iran’s strategic position is a big problem – a Shiite country in a sea of Sunni Muslims.[2] Their whole worldview is based on how to deal with their strategic isolation. They want power, even a bomb, not because of Israel – they know that possession of a bomb in this climate would make them more likely to be attacked, not less. They want strength to intimidate their nearer neighbors from aggression. But alliance with the U.S. would be very valuable to them. A grand bargain? If you understand what Iran needs, you’d cut through the nonsensical rhetoric on both sides and realize we could get a lot of benefits from each other, and any capable Administration would understand and strive for it.

So what’s with these senators. Actually it suggests Alzheimer’s. Some of us remember that a different Administration, a few years ago, eliminated Iraq, Iran’s major enemy in the Middle East, as any sort of threat. And then, even though Iran itself almost went to war with the Taliban,[3] that same Administration made a show of not entering into negotiations with Iran, calling it part of the Axis of Evil – self-contradictorily an Axis consisting of mutual enemies. Having messed up big time a decade ago, some are determined that if they messed up, nobody else is going to get it right. Except for the Alzheimer’s patients – they can’t remember the mistakes.

We talked for decades with the Soviets, the Communist Chinese. But not Iran – that’s off limits. The one Middle Eastern country, other than Israel, whose interests often line up with our own, is nevertheless not worth talking to. Have you ever walked into a nursing home filled with Alzheimers patients? Not all, but unfortunately a lot of them are screaming at everyone in sight and listening to no one. They can’t help it. So now we have the perfect Republican strategy – put the Alzheimers ward into the State Department, and voila, no negotiations, no strategy, no planning, no progress, but it doesn’t matter because nobody’s talking.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 10, 2015.

[1] Ishaan Tharoor, Can Iran’s New U.S.-Educated Foreign Minister Mend Ties With Washington? http://world.time.com/2013/08/06/can-irans-new-u-s-educated-foreign-minister-mend-ties-with-washington/; compare Armin Rosen, Why It Doesn’t Really Matter That So Many Iranian Leaders Have Been Educated In The US, http://www.businessinsider.com/does-it-matter-if-irans-leaders-are-us-educated-2014-10#ixzz3TwmKDXlQ.

[2] See Iranian Foreign Policy Since 2001: Alone in the World (Routledge, Thomas Juneau & Sam Razavi eds.,

2013) for excellent analyses of Iranian isolation.

[3] Douglas Jehl, Iran Holds Taliban Responsible for 9 Diplomats’ Deaths, NY Times, September 11, 1998, http://www.nytimes.com/1998/09/11/world/iran-holds-taliban-responsible-for-9-diplomats-deaths.html.


Israel, Iran and American Diplomacy

March 3, 2015

Some people are angry at Israel because they are against Israel. But some of us are angry because we care so much about its survival and think it is being stupid. Popular foreign policy here and everywhere is about waving swords and shooting anyone in their way. It’s a quick and simple solution. But depend too much on the sword and die by the sword.

I’ve been rethinking what’s been going on in the Middle East. Many of us have been assuming that the conflict between Israel and Palestine was central to Middle Eastern policy and events. I have come to realize that the Palestinians have been used mostly as pawns in a very different struggle and it’s very important to understand that.

Radical foreign fighters have shown themselves willing to flock to battles all over the Middle East, except Palestine. They’re in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Palestinians have been kicked out of much of the Middle East. Theirs is not a popular cause. So why does it keep coming up?

Iran supports Hamas and Hezbollah as a way to reduce its isolation in the Sunni world. Iran has no significant beef with Israel. Ahmadinejah scored political points with inflammatory rhetoric but he and much of that rhetoric have been replaced. By seeming to make common cause with Sunnis, however, Iran hopes to make themselves harder to oppose or fight. And by directing aid to groups fighting Israel, it immunizes itself from the reaction to some Shiite forces deep in the Sunni world.

It is not in Iran’s interest to destroy Israel. Opposition to Israel is part of Iran’s foreign policy, protecting its bona fides in the Sunni Arab world. Destroy Israel and they’ll need something else. But let’s be clear – Iran can be a serious existential threat to a stupid Israel. By comparison other threats in their neighborhood are pinpricks.

Notice the opportunity that creates. The US, Iran and Israel all have things to give each other in a true, regional grand bargain. We could reduce Iran’s regional isolation because we have considerable influence with many of the regional players, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc. Iran could contribute to Israel’s safety by backing off its support for Hamas and Hezbollah. And that could make a reliable peace in Palestine possible. Without external support, the Palestinians would not be nearly as threatening to Israel and a two state solution would really be possible.

I don’t mean to imply that it will be easy to get there. There’s a huge history of mistrust on both sides and both sides have good reason to mistrust the other. The nuclear negotiations, themselves difficult and sensitive, could build the mutual confidence necessary for a wider deal. Americans would have to give our leadership the support and confidence needed to work toward that goal, difficult in the face of Republican sabotage before we even know, let alone consider, whether our negotiators have proposed a constructive bargain.

The leadership of all three countries is skittish for ordinary political reasons. All three hold elections. No politician in either country wants to make a mistake on an issue like this. It would be a huge loss if fear of mistakes prevents the effort to reach a settlement of one of the big issues threatening us, Israel, the Palestinians and continually pulling the US into Middle Eastern conflicts.

I don’t have a pipeline to whatever the deal will look like. Nothing is automatic – a lot depends on our diplomacy and pressure. But major improvement is a possible outcome. So as John F. Kennedy famously told us, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 3, 2015.


Ukraine – The Limits of Power

April 22, 2014

It’s worth another look at Ukraine. Americans have taken a principled pro-democracy stand. But before we get too self-congratulatory, let’s find a little perspective. Read the rest of this entry »


The Palestinian Question

December 3, 2013

There was an interesting event at Albany Law recently.

To open, Rabbi David Gordis explained that thoughtful supporters of Israel actually agree with thoughtful supporters of Palestinians that a solution to their conflict is essential for both of them, that pro-Israelis like Gordis and pro-Palestinians like Columbia history professor Rashid Khalidi were not merely old friends but old allies. Read the rest of this entry »


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