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.

 

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War and the Sources of Fake News

June 25, 2019

The president would have us believe that anything critical of him is fake. To which many respond that everything out of the president’s mouth (or twitter feed) is fake. Both statements, of course, are false.

Everyone makes mistakes but deliberately faked news often has government hands all over it. One American Administration took us into Vietnam based on lies about what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin, which were revealed when government reports were finally declassified. Another took us into Iraq on the basis of cooked evidence about weapons of mass destruction.

Teaching free speech, I don’t compare truth and falsity – there are enough screw-ups to go around. I compare whether there is better information when the press can act as watchdog or when we are forced into total reliance on official pronouncements. Around the world the answer is obvious. Here the answer is clouded by our attachments to our favorite politicians. But the so-called classification system is designed to feed us cooked evidence when an Administration thinks we can’t deal with truth. Of course, some secrets are kept for reasons of national security or diplomatic reasons, but much is protected only for political reasons. All Administrations convince themselves that it’s good for America that they keep secrets or that they deliberately mislead us. We simply have to assume that even our own government lies to us regularly, sometimes convinced that it’s good for us and often convinced that distortions are good for themselves.

That’s why the press matters. No person or institution can understand everything or get everything right.  Even Einstein didn’t although I certainly like his batting average. But only by examining conflicting evidence do we have some hope of teasing out what we need to know.

John Stuart Mill gave us our basic understanding of free speech and press, teaching that public officials have reasons to mislead: for reelection, to enlarge their own power, to get what they want done, to protect themselves or their beliefs, etc. His point was human fallibility coupled with power to throttle everyone else spells a high likelihood of official gobbledygook masquerading as truth. Worse, official censorship blocks the press from digging and correcting as many important stories as possible. Science, by contrast, is designed to keep challenging mistakes and getting better answers. A free press, too, can keep improving answers.

Go back to the examples I made at the head of this essay. The press made lots of mistakes about Vietnam, Iraq, and elsewhere. But the most damaging mistakes resulted from intentional government newsfeeds designed to mislead. We eventually learned the truth about those and many other cases because reporters kept pushing for more and better information.

Unfortunately I’ve learned over many years not to trust our presidents – they have too many reasons to mislead us that seem good to them. I think Trump is worse than most – he so often misstates the facts that I never trust him. Conservative commentator Bret Stephens wrote, “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.” On the other hand, many other presidents have told the truth just often enough that we become gullible when they really want to mislead us.

There’s no way to know what the situation will be between the U.S. and Iran by the time this is broadcast.  But too many lives are at stake; too much depends on figuring out what information is accurate, who is telling the truth and who isn’t, let alone whether it justifies killing both Iranians and Americans. Let there be no war.


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.


Our handling of Iran is juvenile

January 28, 2019

While we have been focused on domestic politics, some of what this Administration has been doing abroad poses serious risks. The Administration has been trying to make Iran the devil behind everything we don’t like and threats have been flying back and forth. That has many of us concerned about where we are going.

The MEK has been the darling of the Administration as a potential successor to the mullahs because they both dislike the Iranian regime. Never mind that the MEK objected when Khomeini decided to release the hostages, that it has been a terrorist organization and killed Americans. Never mind that it has no support in Iran because it backed Iraq against Iran in a war that left 300,000 Iranians dead, and never mind that human rights organizations have documented its abuses. Never mind that Iranians despise the MEK’s version of Islam because it is “worse than the current mullahs.” But it is apparently enough that it dislikes the mullahs regardless of what might happen if they actually tried to take power in Iran, mirroring the tragedy of the second Bush war with Iraq.

Our handling of Iran is both juvenile and dangerous.

We, in this country, are very upset that Russia may have interfered in our elections. Yet we behave dismissively about the American engineered coup d’etat that removed the democratically selected prime minister of Iran and brought the Shah back.

That was a while ago but it led directly to the taking of hostages 26 years later. Everyone in Iran knew that American staff inside the Embassy had reorganized a failed coup d’etat, ended democratic government and brought monarchy back. So yes, the Iranians violated international norms by storming and seizing the Embassy, but would we do less if we believed that Russia was organizing a coup in their Washington embassy? Or would it have been our patriotic duty to stop it by any means necessary?

Yet all the enmity between Iran and the US stems from those two events and we don’t seem to be able to get past it. Iran tried on several occasions to reestablish a decent relationship with the US. It offered to negotiate the full panoply of differences between us. But no president before Obama was willing to deal with them. It was considered unpatriotic even to talk with Iran.

We changed the balance of power in the Middle East by defeating Iraq, leaving Iran the sole major local power and target because power in the region had become unbalanced. This country then worked to complete their local isolation, refusing to include them in regional meetings and arrangements. Their relationship with Israel had been fine and productive until we tried to squeeze them out. Like Germany in NATO, Iran could easily have been included in regional security arrangements. It could and would have become a much better friend than the likes of the Saudis.

But we got furious at every step, shaking fists, making threats, even threatening war, instead of using our heads to create a peaceful Middle East. It’s been much like a fight between kids in a sandbox except that all the kids have powerful weapons. Some presidents need to grow up, for the sake of our fellow citizens.

Tyrants want enemies to vilify in order to unite the country behind them instead of against them. It’s also a distraction from the embarrassments of domestic politics. But warlike behavior can get out of hand, leading some young men to their deaths and families to become refugees. Getting people to unite behind an unpopular president is a sick reason for people to go to their deaths.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 29, 2019.

 

 


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.

 

 


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.

 


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