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.

 


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.


Foreign Roots of the Tragedy in Florida

June 14, 2016

The tragedy in Florida is linked to issues abroad. One candidate sometimes suggests we could solve our problems by isolationism, keeping our troops home, and sometimes by wiping out our adversaries with overwhelming force. His adversary has won over American military leadership with a fairly hard-nosed approach to international politics meshed with the belief that part of America’s international strength comes from our ideological appeal and social justice. What’s going to work?

The Middle East has been getting more violent. And the U.S. has been struggling to figure out how to handle it. George H.W. Bush was careful not to unravel power relations there when he rolled Iraq back from Kuwait. George W. Bush was less cautious, eliminating the Iraqi power structure without a plan to replace it. Since then we’ve been fighting multiple wars in multiple countries. Wars with guerilla tactics like these are costly. Al Qaeda and ISIL or DAESH have learned to motivate individuals or small groups outside of traceable networks. Military forces work poorly against that kind of enemy. We may be a superpower against some obstacles, but not all. The history of warfare has been a multi-millennium cycle of upstarts defeating the super powers of prior ages with new tactics.

What if we disengaged from the Middle East? I doubt Americans have the stomach for it. Israel, our so-called “ally,” continually breaks its promises to America, so the Israeli mouse drives both American Middle Eastern policy and its consequences. America cannot be an honest broker in the Middle East while backing a government of heedless buckaroos who learn nothing from the failures and constant irritation of seven decades of war, eviction of Palestinians and indiscriminate retaliation. Still less can we be an honest broker by engaging in the same tactics that make refugees of millions and radicalize too many. Who are we to criticize the Israelis when our policies have been more and more like theirs? We too pay the price. Our removal of Premier Mossadegh and replacement with the former Shah of Iran contributed to the Revolution of 1979 and subsequent demonization of America. U.S. military moves created chaos in the Sunni world, pushed Turkey toward autocracy, and helped destabilize Europe with a flow of refugees not seen since the World Wars.

Pulling out would leave a power vacuum that those we despise and sometimes fear would fill. If Russia or China were fool enough to move in, the throw weight of Islamic extremism would refocus on them. The short-run consequences, however, could be

Our policies toward the Middle East need to be rethought in light of new realities. Power relations in the Middle East have been drastically reshaped in the last fifteen years. And Saudi Arabia has been playing a double game, supporting radical Islam in return for denying the clerics the keys to governmental power, creating a Hobson’s choice for us. Obama has tried to avoid both disengagement and warfare, but his efforts to reshape thinking about the Middle East have, not surprisingly, run into a barrier of incomprehension. The U.S. should not be driven by the unreliable machinations of paranoid premiers, two-bit dictators and fractured armies in a region of declining importance to the U.S.

America accomplished a great deal in the past as a model of a fair and decent state. Foreign policy isn’t merely a contest of muscle and fire power. Its complexity requires a lot of patience. It took half of century to wait out the Soviet Union. Much as some Republicans want to credit Reagan’s grand gestures, that victory was hatched under Truman and pursued by eight presidents of both parties, without any know-it-all buckaroos upending decades of careful policy. Can we do it again? We’re going to find out.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 14, 2016.

 


Looming Catastrophe and Stubborn People

March 22, 2016

Help. Two major problems have the same structure – it doesn’t look like people will deal with the problem until it is too late. Too late means the survivors will be refugees. Everyone else will be dead. And yet getting people to deal with the threat except at the fringes has been impossible.

One of those problems is global climate change. I’m told people will come around. Great but time is not on our side. I’m told people don’t want to make any sacrifices.  Great. Life is a sacrifice. We sacrifice for everything we want. How about life? For us? Our kids and grandchildren? Isn’t that worth a few pennies? What’s the matter?

We could deal with this. It’s not rocket science. Changes to the tax system would push carbon out of the air. And some regulation would clean up other parts of the problem. Is life itself, for everybody we love, not worth some sacrifice? Can’t we make it clear to everybody in this election season that anything less than a full-court, all-out press to call a halt to global warming is the sine qua non of our support, the one overriding issue, and they’d better do everything they can?

Time might have been on our side when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring came out in 1962, Barry Commoner called attention to environmental threat of global pollution in the late 1960s, and we held the first Earth Day in 1970. That was 46 years ago. Time is not on our side now. Action is crucial now; we need to do everything possible to make the system move. Corporations that hide behind the bad-for-business apologias deserve boycotts. Everybody’s shoulders need to go to all the wheels – now.

The same dynamic underlies Israel’s miscalculation of its own position. It has now lost or is in the process of  losing all its allies. The majority there has been stubborn and stupid in denying that they needed to make any changes. But it’s become obvious to many more than those of us who’ve been crying in the wilderness for years. I know I’ll get hate mail – people cover up their own blindness by refusing to see and blaming everyone else around. Sorry. That won’t help. The problem isn’t me; it’s that the world has lost patience and it doesn’t particularly matter now if the world is right or wrong. Israel never had a future without allies and Israel has been squandering its erstwhile friends. It’s bet on the Republicans has only revealed the loss of support across the American political spectrum. So will Israel go the way of the Crusades? It will take a lot of far-sighted savvy to stave that off and I doubt their politics will permit it.

Two very different problems and yet two problems that are very similar. Meanwhile, I sit down to write some commentary, and here, two problems close to my heart are looking intractable and I don’t really know what to say. Help. Let’s get this done.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 22, 2016.


For Whom the Bell Tolls Amid the Refugee Crisis

January 12, 2016

Wars in the Middle East are creating huge flows of refugees. If war creates refugees, we either have to have a way to stop the wars or a policy about refugees. Just saying we will or won’t let people in is a decision, not a policy. One must think past those decisions to the enormous consequences.

Countries can try to exclude refugees leaving them to fend for themselves wherever they are. Countries can also put them in camps, let them in but then leave them to fend for themselves, or help them settle. Surrounding countries can also stop them at borders, keep them in camps, or let or help them settle. The permutations produce very different results.

More than six decades ago, Arab states refused to let the Palestinians settle. Ipso facto they created a permanent Palestinian fighting force. But who would the Palestinians fight? The oppressors keeping them in the camps, or the oppressors who pushed them out of their land? Which story would they buy? Refugee issues can fester. Both Palestinians and Israelis feel their backs to the wall and feel themselves fighting for survival, with lethal results.

Incidentally at the same time, a much larger refugee crisis existed in the Indian subcontinent leading to the separate nations of India and Pakistan out of the British Raj. That land is still troubled, though neither denies the other’s right to exist. In both cases, the mass exoduses left powerful marks on the stability of the regions.

And on the US southern border what happens to the people we exclude and what happens to us because of it? Impoverished masses elsewhere are likely to do the same things that impoverished masses do here – turn to some forms of crime. I doubt, when one takes white collar crime and tax evasion into account, that crime is much more prevalent amongst the poor but it is different – mostly theft, drug dealing or prostitution for survival or quick cash.

Then there’s the effort to deport people who were brought here as small children, an effort some of the prominent Republican candidates have endorsed. Ok, what are those kids going to do when they are back in their countries of origin? Many of them will find themselves jobless because they are strangers in what Americans insist on calling their land. But those young people brought up in the United States will prove valuable to criminal enterprises abroad because they could cross the borders and pass here easily. From an American point of view, those likelihoods of crime and participation in organized crime abroad are dangerous here. Volatile borders do no one any good.

Would it be better to bring them in, settle, employ and educate them and our people too, than to insist that everyone is on their own volatile devices to deal with the cruelties of a world without mercy. And then think about the effect of refugees on the people they leave behind. Think about the letters home, and the money home. Who is the so-called Great Satan when family write back with ordinary family developments – marriages, jobs, babies – and send money.

Creating a population tsunami and then pushing people back into swirling lifeboats has consequences for all of us. “No man is an island,” wrote John Donne, “entire of itself….. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 12, 2016.


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