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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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.

 

 


Happy New Year

January 1, 2019

In keeping with the spirit of the day I’d like to share a prayer that expresses ways in which collectively we have fallen short and need to do better. My hopes for the new year are entwined in that doing better. I think it makes little difference in whose house of worship I found the language because I think we all share it though the words may vary:

We dishonor You when we dishonor our society:

For our failures of justice, … [Lord], we seek forgiveness.

For being indifferent to deprivation and hunger,

while accepting a culture of self-indulgence and greed.

For abuse of power in board rooms, court rooms and classrooms,

and for accepting the neglect of children and elders, the ill and the weak.

For permitting social inequalities to prevail,

and for lacking the vision to transcend our selfishness.

For glorifying violence and turning hastily to war,

and for allowing history to repeat itself.

For behaviors that risk the future of our planet,

and for wreaking havoc on our only true inheritance – God’s creation.

What I always liked about attending religious services is that they create a time to hear and express the finer goals of life. And so too in those words.

In thinking about each other we recognize that everybody counts, that achieving our common goals depends on recognizing the importance and humanity of all, so that we can pull together to achieve what is crucial to us all.

In thinking about the ways these values resonate in each of our faiths, we recognize how much more we are linked than divided, whether because some of our faiths were bred on the same Middle Eastern mountains and deserts, or because of the miracle by which these ideas have been repeatedly reborn across the globe.

In thinking about the transcendence of these common values of generosity, caring, fairness, justice, peace and concern for the world we share, we think about the unity among our faiths and among us as people.

The narratives of how each of our faiths came to share those values differ but we share the values – the Golden Rule, Loving our neighbors – we share a tradition of mutual care and concern of which we can be justly proud and which deserves our commitment. Indeed, it is the only path to the survival of our earthly home and the possibility that our children and grandchildren will live lives unembittered by the world collapsing around them, from fire, flood, hunger, poison, thirst or scourge. I’m thinking about Maggie and Rebecca. Perhaps you’re thinking about Jodie and Joseph. We and all our children and grandchildren share this world. And how we and they come out of it depends on how well we share it and take care of each other.

Happy New Year


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.

 


Images of America

March 6, 2018

When the Metropolitan Opera came on with Madame Butterfly recently, I began to puzzle about why the opera is so strongly anti-American. In Butterfly, an American naval lieutenant trifles with the heart of a young Japanese woman ending with her ritual suicide, leaving their baby to him and his new American wife.

It turns out that the story originated with a French officer about his own experiences but Puccini, who wrote the opera, saw a rewritten version, the version that became the basis of the magnificent and tragic love story he was to immortalize in music.

My students never like to be confronted with dates but dates are telling. The original version of Madame Butterfly was finished and performed in 1904. That was shortly after the end of what we call the Spanish-American war, the war that left us with Puerto Rico and, until we gave them independence, the Philippines.

America has come to think of itself as Franklin Delano Roosevelt left it, decent and triumphant in the cause of freedom and democracy. The symbols of our battle were drawn by Norman Rockwell – freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and fear. It was a war for self-preservation – we had been attacked at Pearl Harbor. It was also a moral crusade, for democracy, freedom and the welfare of mankind. Soon after the war, President Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall sprang to the aid of refugees and impoverished people all over Europe with aid and redevelopment. America was a beacon of hope and decency for the world.

But more recently our military involvement in the Middle East and Asia has forced us to look back at our behavior, particularly in the Philippines. After World War II, some Philippinos told me they often thought of the U.S. like the cavalry in a western movie, massed on a ridge ready to save them from disaster. That may be a fair portrayal of our role there in World War II. But our part in the Spanish-American War is much less fondly remembered, in this country as well as abroad. American troops there pioneered methods of torture that we used later in Iraq. America’s great humorist, Mark Twain, wrote a searing short story about our part in the Spanish-American war – and, understanding how hard it would be for Americans to face that reality, dictated that it could not be published in his lifetime. During the war in Vietnam, we drove over to Mark Twain’s home town in Missouri and found that his War Prayer was his best selling work in the book store, but in the Mark Twain museum, The War Prayer was not to be found – it was still too upsetting for the townspeople.

The Founders of our country liked to refer to what they called the “genius of the people.” But the American people have stood for very different things at different times. Maybe it’s just that different people had more power or maybe it’s that the same people are driven by different motives. The Founders had a different thought – there’s evil in all of us.

But the wages of moral behavior are significant. The America that came off World War II leading the defense and reconstruction of the free world is not automatically the America that is closing itself off from the destinies of everyone we choose not to care about. And the international repercussions will be significant.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 6, 2018.


The Challenges

January 10, 2017

Looking at the New Year, there are two existential challenges that must be dealt with: global climate change and the threat to American democracy.

Global climate change has to be at the top of the agenda because scientists are telling us we are crossing tipping points. What is a tipping point? It is the point where the damage already done makes the process go out of control. You can’t stop a bomb once it starts – the explosion takes over. And tipping points are being crossed. As arctic ice melts, it’s not just that the earth got warmer already, it’s that the highly reflective ice was reflecting heat back into space and isn’t there to do that any more so without humans doing anything more, global warming speeds up. That’s a tipping point. Other tipping points are in the oceans and the food chain. Climate change threatens real doom, a mass extinction, and the creatures to be extinguished this time are us. So go ahead and throw your grandchildren into the fire and then see if you’re allowed into heaven. Folks, if we send our grandchildren to hell you can be sure that we’ll be right there burning with them.

American democracy is at risk because a foreign power has seen that it is possible to manipulate American elections and an American candidate has seen that it is possible to manipulate the people who are prepared to put weapons in the service of their hatred. And if Trump is half as venal as I think he is, and follows the path of demagogues and dictators, he will bribe members of Congress in order to have his way and to stay in office. Even worse, if he follows the pattern of dictators and demagogues, he will try to distract America with a war. I don’t want to think about the mem, women and children who will lose their lives for the glory of Trump!

We are not in good hands. Americans could be put to work to deal with the environment, build and rebuild our infrastructure, handle real threats to our country and to each other. But to save a few more dollars for the richest among us, people will not be put to work doing the things we need and the richest won’t have to share to take care of our country. That’s kleptocracy folks, it’s precisely the kind of behavior that we expect from Putin and the world’s most bloodthirsty dictators.

No, we are not in good hands because the evil in the Manhattan tower is a greedy grabber of money and power, a denier of global warming, corruption, how the economy works, and the common good.

This is a crisis as serious as World War II – an existential crisis. Will America survive, never mind greatness, if we succumb to a dictator? Will humanity survive, never mind flourish, if global climate change makes refugees and cadavers of us all – and who’ll take in refugees then? What will we do to reign in global warming, protect American democracy, and preserve the country we were blessed with?

Remember ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. We will be strangers – on the planet.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 10, 2017.

 


The Legacy of Barack Obama

January 3, 2017

Barack Obama has been one of our most decent and intelligent presidents. I’ll miss him. Instead of simplification and slogans, Obama explained the complexities of everything from medical treatment to foreign policy. Instead of shooting from the hip, he studied problems carefully and reached mature, intelligent decisions.

But what will stick?

Starting with foreign affairs, Obama got most of the boots off Muslim lands. When Obama took office in 2008 we had close to 200,000 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now we have about 15,000 troops, combined, there and in Syria.

ISIS seems to have refocused on Europe but that’s still a problem for us. Europeans’ objectives are compatible with our own, so they are crucial allies, unlike the Russians. But Europe confronts many times more refugees than we do, with backlash and threats to democracy in several countries. American action in Syria added to the refugee flow, but much resulted from revolutions independent of us. More American militarization in the Arab world would inflame the refugee crisis and increase the terrorism directed at us.

Terrorists are fueled by militarization; nations are much more vulnerable to our military – that’s the difference between defeating Saddam Hussein, having him executed and trying to remain there. Trump may talk tough, but will he be fool enough to wade back into those trouble waters?

In Guantanamo, fewer than 60 prisoners remain of the nearly 800 who were imprisoned there.

Republicans dislike the Iran nuclear deal but so far they’ve nothing to show for their fears. Objections from the other signatories may prevent Trump from disavowing it. This may be the first real test of whether Trump has any grip on reality.

At home, Republicans have been yelling for years that they will tear Obamacare down the first chance they get. But their friends in the insurance industry will howl if they do, especially if Republicans leave features Americans like – a guarantee that you can get insurance, coverage for pre-existing conditions, tax credits for small businesses, etc. So it’s not clear what they’ll actually do. Obama took his health care plan from Mitt Romney’s Republican plan. I can think of improvements to the left of Obamacare, but not any that are more consistent with Republican free-market philosophy. Republicans are in a pickle.

Obama got a small stimulus soon after taking office. Terrified it might actually work, Republicans fought to keep it small. Obama’s stimulus worked, slowly, satisfying the cynicism of Congressional Republicans willing to hurt the country in order to make Obama look bad.

Dodd-Frank financial regulation still stands, reigning in a financial system that gambled with everyone else’s money and made a large number of us much worse off.

Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. One has become the conscience of the Court, the other quieter and more conciliatory. Together, they’ve made a the Court much more fair. The future depends on how long Ginsburg lives and how long Trump is in office. The difference Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan made could disappear in a heartbeat.

So, there’s a lot to celebrate in what Obama did or tried to accomplish. But I have real fears of what could be done in the effort to discredit him instead of making things better for the people of America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 3, 2017.


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