Trump’s wrong approach to Iran

January 7, 2020

What’s wrong with Trump’s approach to Iran? Let me count the ways.

First, Trump’s claims about stopping Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s plans make little sense. What had been planned can take place with or without him. Iranian strikes are more, not less, likely now.  This is too similar to the prelude to the war in Iraq except that Trump isn’t taking the time to try to convince anyone. We just have unsubstantiable and probably false claims as a basis for very costly decisions.

Second, the timing is suspicious. War threats blew impeachment out of the news. In other words, everything is PR.

Third, Trump’s stated policy is tit for tat. But where does it end? If we need to have the last strike, why don’t they? Most important he has crushed any diplomatic path to peace as a way out.

Fourth, this was totally unnecessary. President Obama created a path to peace in the Middle East. Only Trump thought the Iranians weren’t obeying the nuclear agreement – those who actually went and looked agreed the deal was working.  But Trump shredded the existing path to peace, revived animosities that made it useless to stay in Iraq, provoked Iran by increasing sanctions after destroying the legal basis for sanctions and is now delivering the Middle East to other foreign powers like Russia and China. Iran has been measured and restrained by comparison.

Fifth, the military is not united on this. Trump has found people in the military who will work with him while other high-ranking and responsible brass react that his missions are not properly vetted and do more harm than good. Disagreement is fine but the possibility that Trump is reshaping the Army so that it can’t threaten a Trump takeover scares me most. Then we are all in the sewers, concentration camps or gas chambers. If you think that’s not possible, that’s exactly what does make it possible. We have to stop him, not ignore him.

Sixth, it is now much more likely that we are headed for war. Trump has managed to move the Iranian people from blaming their own government for their troubles to blaming the U.S. So the political pressures in Iran are now all on the side of action again the U.S.

Seventh, Iran does have the capability to react. They are well-organized for asymmetrical or unconventional warfare. American power is based on throw weight and mass destruction; Iranian power is based on secrecy and guerilla tactics. Military conflict with Iran will be very costly, a view strongly held within the military. Taking them on militarily makes little sense when there are better ways of managing conflict.

The real problem is to find someone who behaves like an adult in the White House. That makes the impeachment process more urgent and important. And by the way, the Constitution demands a trial. Trials in America are based on testimony under oath. Trial without witnesses is an oxymoron, another way Senate leaders insist on ignoring the Constitution – because they know testimony would be very damning to Trump.

For those interested, here is a link to expert commentators and the views of the organization of former Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Iran.


Sa’adi’s Iranian Poetry and International Order

October 29, 2019

This could be called a tale of two birthdays. While celebrating my wife’s birthday at a restaurant, she got an email in response to her request that the writer handle some things at an upcoming national conference.

Early American presidents ended their letters by declaring themselves “Your most humble and obedient servant.” They believed in humility and public service. Persians express humility differently. Like my wife and myself, the writer of the email she opened had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran. His note reflected Iranian hyperbole and the Persian system of manners which they call Ta’arof: “I am your sacrifice,” he wrote, “you may walk on my eyes.” That was not a complaint, but, in context, much like Jefferson’s expression of humility and willingness.  The Persian reference to injuring eyes preserves painful memories, like many nursery rhymes we sing unsuspectingly. The Persian reference is to Mongol rulers, descendants of Genghis Khan, who cut out their opponents’ eyes. Knowing it’s meaning, I’ve never been able to use that expression. But both his and Jefferson’s reflect a culturally rooted sense of civility.

My dad visited me while I was in the Peace Corps and I threw him a party for his 70th birthday. While there, he gave me a book of Persian poetry as a gift, the Gulestan or Rose Garden, by Sa’adi, a much loved thirteenth century Persian poet, and the pride of the city where I worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Poetry is very important to the Persians. There were monuments in Shiraz to Sa’adi and Hafez who wrote just a few years after Sa’adi died. Two centuries earlier, Ferdowsi wrote his Shahnameh or Book of Kings, a beautifully poetic attempt to remember the pre-Islamic past of Iran.

This Administration, and some of its predecessors, have tried to force Iran into submission with painful restrictions on trade. This and other countries have also tried to isolate Iran among dangerous regional regimes that have threatened Iran in the past, most notably Russia and the Soviet Union.

The Peace Corps Iran Association, of which my wife is president, was invited to make a presentation at the Kennedy Center. As part of that presentation, John Limbert, himself both a former ambassador and hostage, responded to the policy of penalizing and isolating Iran with a reference to the poetry of Sa’adi.[1] Many Persians know Sa’adi’s poetry by heart. In fact, when I called a friend to ask him about the language Ambassador Limbert had recited, I heard my friend’s father start reciting the entire poem in the background.  Here is the couplet Limbert recited – in both Persian and English translation:

نمیبینی که چون گربه عاجز شور

به چنگال در آرد چشم پلنگ

Nemibini ke chun gorbeh ‘aajez shavad,

be changaal dar avarad, cheshm-e-palang?

Have you not seen the cornered cat,

whose tiny claws will tear out the eyes of a leopard?

The implication is that they don’t want to fight but can and will to save their country.

It is a mistake to think of Iran in stereotypical terms as a bunch of brutes. Like all peoples, they can overreact, especially during a revolution, and international politics often brings out the worst instincts of nations. Nevertheless, I experienced Iranians as a very decent, cultured and friendly people, but a people who love their country and expect to be treated with respect. It’s funny, but showing respect is, at once, one of the easiest and most difficult things to do. Often, it’s little more than the language that reflects each other’s humanity and accomplishments. But it’s so difficult when we fight about who’s number 1.

[1] The Gulistan or Rose Garden of Sa’di , 85-86 (George Allen & Unwin, ltd. Edward Rehatsek, trans., W.G. Archer, ed. 1964) (in the eighth story in the first chapter).


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