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.


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.

 


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.

 


Reactions to the Charlie Hebdo bombings – Was it just about France?

January 13, 2015

In what other country do world leaders march with arms linked against terrorism? Terrorism goes on in every continent but we mourn and gather in Europe. Terrorism happens in Haifa, Jerusalem and the West Bank – in both directions – but we mourn and gather in Europe. Do we stand for a principle or is France the principle – that France cannot be touched? Or that France is in danger? But other places are in danger. For all my criticisms of Israeli reactions, they are in considerable danger as the Palestinians have been able to use Israeli reactions to the devastation caused by their own terrorism to unite much of the world against Israel. Or is there good and bad terrorism? Were the Communists right, that’s it’s all about whose terrorists are freedom fighters?

So does this lead anywhere? Is the world standing together in Paris a prelude to a principle? But where do principles lead? To more pious declarations? Pious declarations can help lead to forms of action. If the free countries of the world really wanted to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they clearly could put the screws on both sides and make a two-state solution actually happen. It’s too late to just back off and say it’s their fight and take no sides. But death there is just politics, who we stand with, not what we stand against. Letting it go on when that fight could be stopped is all about being able to use the conflict for politics, even though it is clearly spiraling out of control and enveloping us all. The conflict does no one any good except that pious declarations allowed the French to appear as friends of oppressed people without doing anything about it.

Of course we have been misplaying the Middle East for decades. We were hostile to a group of Middle Eastern leaders with real popular support because we didn’t like their domestic policies. So their peoples, or many of them, have been drawing the obvious conclusion – that their fight is international. The West doesn’t help. It just supports extractive industries and kleptocratic leaders while letting the problems of the people of the Middle East fester. Why do we expect to be free of terrorism in the West when we have a policy of supporting strong men who protect American and western business while raping their peoples and otherwise blessing all the nonsense they commit at home?

I find myself continually drawn to Pogo’s remark, “We have met the enemy and they is us.” All over the globe we have fought against peoples and leaders who try to take care of their own people. Leaders who try to provide for their own. We have had a part in displacing liberal leaders in Latin America, Africa and Asia because they really tried to make things better for their countrymen.

We who grandly tell the world about the virtues of self-government, and tell the world that our internal policies are none of their business, because we govern ourselves, do the reverse because we have the muscle.

I was struck by a statement by Chris Giannou on Alternative Radio who remarked that the world, including the Muslim world, “love you for your values. They hate you for your hypocrisy.”

Values are powerful until we compromise them with war, torture and indiscriminate killing as if the peoples of the Middle East are just there for us to play with.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 13, 2015.


ISL and US Foreign Policy

September 16, 2014

America decided to deal with the Native Americans by war and exile. It took three centuries, as succeeding generations of Indians realized that the White Man would honor no treaty and give them no peace.

Israel has tried since the 1960s to deal with what initially were relatively isolated attacks, by holding every country in the neighborhood responsible, and responding massively to each attack. Six decades later the problem has widened. Unlike the Native Americans, the Palestinians have major allies.

We have repeatedly responded with military force to foreign problems only to see them spin out of control and make things much worse. Read the rest of this entry »


Reality Check on Iran

July 23, 2013

I recently attended a meeting of former Peace Corps volunteers who had served in Iran. We shared the fundamental perspective that Iran should be an ally, not an enemy, and that the current standoff is the result of government mistakes on both sides.

Iran has a democratic tradition going back to 1906, with an elected legislature or Majlis. It also had a democratically selected Prime Minister, until deposed with the U.S. C.I.A. taking credit. Iranians never forgot–their attachment to democracy is one of the strongest in the Middle East. Read the rest of this entry »


Israel and the Palestinians

March 12, 2013

American politicians have been tumbling over each other promising they would support the government of Israel by all means necessary. But I wouldn’t vote for Netanyahu if I could and don’t want this country marching to his orders.

Read the rest of this entry »


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