Feb 18 2009

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Iran – Priority #1 for POTUS

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A Complex and Complicated History...

A Complex and Complicated History…

Savvy foreign policy experts will immediately recognize that foreign policy action over the next four years will not be in Iraq, Afghanistan, through the Middle East peace process, or, for you Hillary Clinton enthusiasts, global warming in Asia.

No, the action will be with Iran and efforts by the Obama administration to reach an accommodation with the Islamic Republic that has eluded the United States since 1979.

Geographically, the outreach speaks for itself.

Iran borders no less than ten countries of significant national security interest to the US, not the least of which are Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Moreover, in US eyes, the Islamic Republic has been at the root of regional troubles. Iran insists on a nuclear program (despite its mass reserves of oil), close ties to client state Syria (with its own, clandestine nuclear efforts), meddling in Shia politics in southern Iraq and arming anti-US forces there, and its strong financial and material support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza – both terrorist organizations – that are destabilizing influences in efforts to brings about peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Iranian threats against Israel, voiced time and again are a source of uncertainty and deep suspicion.

A formal settlement between the US and Iran would transform the region and bring conclusion to many of these source of instability.

Americans under the age of 30 have no recollection of Iran when it wasn’t an Islamic Republic and international outcast. Yet, the hostage crisis that ended normal relations with the US in 1979 remains the defining moment in relations between the two countries.

Like any country, to understand Iran is to understand its history. The history of the America is no more completely told through the actions of the Bush or Clinton administrations, than Iran is through the history of the Islamic Republic.

Historical Context:

Iranians aren’t Arabs; they’re Persians, with a civilization that dates back more than 2,500 years. As a crossroads between Europe and Asia, it was a place of cultural refinement, law philosophy, literature and medicine. At its high point, between 224-651AD, the Persian empire encompassed all of modern day Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Syria to the West, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the East, Arabia to the south and parts of Armenia the Caucasus region and Turkey to the north and northwest.

In 657AD Islamic armies defeated the Persians which began a period of Islamicization of what is modern day Iran between the 8th-10th centuries. Uniquely, the achievements of Persian society, particularly in municipal administration and law, were absorbed into Islamic polity.

For roughly 800 years, Persians followed Sunni Islam religious teachings. During the Empire of Saffavid, however, the population was forced to embrace Shia-ism. The full conversion took decades, but by the end of the Saffavid period in the 1700s, most of Iran was Shia.

What is interesting in the Islamicization of Persia is a thoughtful comparison of which culture had the greater impact on the other. Through multiple invasions and occupations by foreign powers – Arabs, Turks and Mongols – Persians managed to maintain a “Persian identity and culture.” Through Persian use of Arabic, it was the influence of Persian culture, on Islam which made it to the gates of Vienna and modern day Morocco during Islam’s greatest territorial gains.

After the Saffavid period to the dawn of the 20th century, Iran was invaded and or controlled through spheres of influence, specifically by the British and the Russians. “Strongman” rule, which had personified most of Persia’s history, was legitimized by the rise of the Palavi dynasty in 1925. The Palavi’s ruled Iran until the revolution in 1979.

Negotiating Context:

The brief history reveals key context in talking to Iran.

First, Iran has a culture that is ten times older than that of the US. While we may be glib about our global cultural domination today and look askance at the “backwardness” of the Islamic Republic and its societal protocols, it is the Iranians who are the genuine cultural elitists with centuries of cultural endurance. Moreover, they have managed to maintain their “Persian-ness” amid invasion and occupation, a major achievement and source of deep national pride.

Second, while contemporary Americans see Iran through the prism of the 20th century history, Iranians can look to a time when they were the superpower of their day with borders that encompassed all of today’s most unstable regions. Western complaints about Iranian “interference” in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan look different when viewed through the screen of two millennium of history.

These two items inform a third; that as a nation that has been invaded and occupied for hundreds of years, Iran today is surrounded by potentially unfriendly governments.

To the east, there is Afghanistan under the rule of an American-sponsored government and a nuclear-armed Pakistan. To the north there are the descendent republics of the old Soviet Union, autocratic and unstable. To the West is Iraq, with its American-sponsored Shia government, and beyond, the American friendly regimes in Jordan and Egypt. To the South, you see Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, Sunni and allied with the West.

If you took away the country names and looked only to the geography, would the desire for nuclear weapons seem so absurd? Certainly countries such as Poland, Russia and Vietnam would understand these geographic concerns from their own histories.

To these historical issues we must add the most important and most fundamental point, which is the ideological nature of the Islamic Republic itself. Its legitimacy as a government rides on its anti-Shah credentials. This cannot be emphasized enough.

The Khomeini regime restored Islam to its historic place in Iran, where the Shah had sought to downplay Islam in favor of the glories of Persian accomplishments, and a decided tilt to Western modernism. It was the Shah’s Iran that was the only Middle East Islamic country to recognize Israel.

Overthrowing an established order requires the revolutionaries to hold true to their ideological, or in this case, theological credentials. Those anti-Shah credentials have two key outcomes; a state-led hostility toward the forces th at supported the Shah – the United States and Israel. Second, an ideological move by the Khomeini regime to revive and instill Islamic unity in a manner not inconsistent with the efforts of Egyptian Gamel Abdul Nasser in the 50s for Arab unity; to burnish Iran’s Islamic bone fides and place it in a leadership position in doing so.

When you integrate Persian history with the radical, theologically-based politics and foreign affairs found in the Islamic Republic, the risks based on Iran’s interpretation of history and the fundamentals of its revolution poses a grave regional challenge.

Today, the US faces a proud civilization that has flourished, contributed and ultimately survived invasion and occupation for 1500 years, now run by a theocracy whose legitimacy is based on a revolution from modernity as it is itself a source of revolutionary Islam.

The American Way to Negotiations:

By historical standards, Americans are newcomers to global leadership; pretenders in a sense, that jumped to the head of the line in international prominence over more mature societies that had centuries-long cultural evolutions.

As a heterogeneous society that finds its cultural unity, through abstract values and principles, as opposed to more traditional ethnicity, Americans generally defer to the law as the final arbiter in disputes big and small.

Consider Bush v. Gore.

Political Washington notwithstanding, Americans are conditioned to the art of compromise and the concept of the fair deal. Except for Nancy Pelosi, DailyKos and their ilk, Americans are generally uncomfortable with people, officials, leaders or movements whose goal is not agreement based on compromise.

American Presidents embody this notion. Roosevelt was certain that there w as no post WWII disagreement that he couldn’t charm away with Stalin, to America’s eternal regret at Yalta. Reagan, for his part, was certain that if he could meet face to face with Soviet leaders and show them America, he could prove that the US had no nefarious intent.

A companion to this trait is the idea that talking to rigidly opposing parties is not only beneficial but is a worthy goal in its own right. Throughout the Reagan administration’s first term, critics wailed that the Administration was the first since WWII not to meet with a Soviet leader. It bears mentioning in counterpoint that the lack of a meeting did not stop the collapse of communism seven years later, but still the negotiation debate raged.

More recently, over the past eight years, critics of the Bush administration have complained about the lack of direct US talks with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, as if the act of talking itself had virtue.

The Grand Bargain:

All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, there is almost a religious zeal that issues regarding Iran can be dealt with if only the West would engage them. Reagan tried, and came closer than any President should to violating the Arms Export Control Act and providing anti-tank weapons to the Iranians in return for hostages held in Lebanon. It almost cost him the presidency.

And the Grand Bargain will necessarily be an American bargain.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) keeps on issuing increasingly alarming reports on the Iranian nuclear program, and the Europeans keep promising stiffer action, but UN efforts have so far been nothing but farce, as the Iranians themselves know – the Europeans have no stomach for conflict.

So it is left to the US. What might a “Grand Bargain” look like?

For the Iranians:

  • Open all facilities for nuclear inspection, including suspected military sites for research and production of nuclear weapons.
  • Destroy its stockpile of WMD including poison gases and toxins.
  • Renounce material aid to Hezbollah and Hamas.
  • Cease interfering in Lebanese domestic political affairs.
  • Renounce Syrian terrorism and ties.
  • Cease abetting Shia separatists in southern Iraq.
  • Renounce terrorism, acknowledges complicity in past acts of terrorism and pays compensation to victims.
  • Cease all hostile remarks regarding Israel.

In return the United States could:

  • Re-establish diplomatic and economic relations with Iran. Opening a huge market for Iranian goods for export, an infusion of cash and expertise in the oil market.
  • Lead efforts to repeal existing multilateral sanctions on Iran and welcome Iran into world bodies.
  • Recognize legitimate Iranian security concerns with regard to Iraq and Afghanistan, including border disputes, making Iran a regional partner in those discussions.
  • Enter into a phased dialogue that links the rotation of US troops in the region to political and economic stability, making Iran a partner in the success of politically stable regimes.
  • Apologize for American support for the Shah and the pain that this caused the Iranian people.
  • Provide a security guarantee that the United States will not undermine the Islamic Republic or seek or support its overthrow.
  • Unfreeze Iranian assets still in the US from pre-Khomeini days.

I am sure there are more conditions that experts on each side could add. Already there is enough here to get partisans fairly rattled.

But the transcendental fact here is not that there are potential terms for a bargain. Rather, it is a recognition that one side is in a position to deliver and the other is not.

Specifically the conditions laid out above for the US are all within a range of activities that are conceivable within American foreign policy, given reciprocal Iranian action. Lawmakers may not like an apology for instance, but it would be profound coming from Obama. Involving Iran regionally and lifting sanctions unilaterally and multilaterally is a function of a process and confidence-building.

The real challenge, at the end of the day, is that Iran cannot make the concessions necessary to seal the deal.

The situation is broadly analogous to Kennan’s Long Telegram in the late 1940s, which mapped out a strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union. Kennan’s premise, similar to what we see in Iran, is that its’ revolutionary roots require a foreign bogeyman, and that any external political entente undermines that. Kennan recommended a strategy that became containment, which succeeded 44 years l ater when the Soviet regime imploded on its contradictions.

The fact of the matter is that the Iranians can talk ad nauseum, but they cannot cut a deal, as institutionally, the conditions would run counter to their founding revolutionary principles.

The Khomeini Revolution was a reaction to the repressiveness of the Shah, his press for modernity and US/Israeli support for him. As a revolutionary Islamic regime, Iranian foreign policy seeks to aggressively expand Iranian power in areas that have historically been of Persian interest, including Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan and Iraq, under the rubric of Islamic liberation, specifically Shia-ism.

Under this construct, support for Hezbollah is not tactical, it’s strategic; a foothold to leverage influence in Lebanon. Support for Hamas not only serves Islamic revolutionaries, it is a stick in the eye to the Israelis who supported the Shah. And what better way to bleed the Great Satan than engage Shia brothers in Iraq in an effort to harm and humiliate the Americans.

And so it goes with the nuclear program. To compromise here is to compromise on national honor. Even the Shah had a nuclear program, sanctioned by no less an oracle of foreign policy wisdom than Henry Kissinger. Officially, Iran says that the program is for peaceful purposes only. This should serve to only further infuriate Iranians who see others – the Israelis and Pakistanis who have used clandestine nuclear programs to create, test and deploy nuclear weapons.

So, the Iranians, for all the hopes of their interlocutors in the West, have li ttle or no running room to compromise. They cannot curb their regional ambitions without jeopardizing their historical credibility. They cannot cease support for Islamic liberation movements without jeopardizing their evolutionary credentials. Actions counter to US or Israeli policy are founded on both strategic and ideological grounds. And for all the talk, they cannot give on the nuclear program and the option for a nuclear weapon, which the UN says looks increasingly likely.

So what is the US to do?

For President Bush, it was to wait it out.

Iran-engagers were apoplectic that opportunity after opportunity for engagement with Iran had withered and tha t the absence of talks only fueled talk of war.

Bush‘s reaction was to support Israel and Lebanon against Hamas and Hezbollah, support European efforts to control the Iranian nuclear program through the UN, and bring force to bear in southern Iraq against extra-territorial Iranian efforts to mobilize Shia against the US. Under Bush, the US sought to marginalize Iran and its agenda, and bolster its Sunni competitors for power in the region. Bush settled for containment as the best of options.

But what for President Obama?

Once you realize that the Iranian regime is not in a position to deliver, the negotiation rapidly turns to a conc essions game based on which conditions the West will be willing to live without in order to secure a “deal.”

The” deal” becomes the goal.

This is the road to Munich.

British PM Neville Chamberlin waved an agreement from his airplane after meeting Hitler and giving away Czechoslovakia without a shot, announcing that he had achieved “Peace in our Time.” Britain was at war with Germany less than a year later under strategic circumstances much less favorable had Chamberlin not sought temporary appeasement at the expense of permanent settlement.

During the presidential campaign, both Obama and McCain seemed to lay out similar positions on Iran. Both were opposed to a nuclear Iran and refused to rule out force to prevent it. Both condemned the acts of Hezbollah and Hamas and called for Iran to be a responsible regional actor.

Obama’s distinction was his willingness to talk “without pre-conditions.” If Obama is serious about Iran – and there is no reason to believe he is not – he has a menu of additional concessions he can use to entice the Iranians.

  • Formally recognize the role of Hezbollah in Lebanon as a legitimate political party.
  • Enter into talks with Hamas and a power sharing agreement with Fatah to broker an Israeli-Palestinian deal.
  • Allow the Iranians to acquire nuclear weapons, but announce a doctrine of “regional massive retaliation” by the United States if the weapons are used.

These are all strikingly serious and consequential concessions bringing potentially unexpected if not outright dangerous consequences.

But the consideration and implementation of any of these measures fail the test of seriousness and time because in the end, they address the symptoms and not the disease, in this case, the underlying disconnect between the ambitions of Islamic Iran and the regional imperatives of the US. Concessions for concession’s sake will only tilt the balance of power in Iran’s favor, giving the regime increased prominence, prestige and strategic edge.

For engagement enthusiasts, the Obama gambit on Iran is already a success just by his willingness to talk. However, negotiations can amplify, but not always solve. Mutual respect cannot undo history or contemporary political realities.

It is a grounding reminder to look at the “demands” of Iranian President Ahmadinajad and top Iranian officials, including an American apology, non-interference in affairs of the region (which would presumably apply to US assistance to Israel and a free hand for Hamas and Hezbollah) and a repeal of all sanctions on Iran.

The fundamental gulf that separates the US and Iran is large, real and consequential.

And time is slipping. IAEA chief Mohammad El Baredei said today that Iran is a year away from building a nuclear device. Others say that Iran already has the material to make a bomb.

We have reached the nexus where revolutionary Islamic ambition and national pride runs headlong into US foreign policy priorities in a region critical to US economic and security interests.

Can Obama stop Iran through talks? Will he have to give more than is prudent to reach a greater nuclear good? Or is talk, as it has been with the Europeans, only a time-wasting device for the Iranians whose very revolutionary foundation prevents meaningful settlement with the Great Satan.

Duffy bets that the Iranians won’t compromise meaningfully.

We are left with less than satisfactory options; Containment, Regime Change or Appeasement.

Will Obama be a revered peacemaker, or will he fatefully have to address an evil now to avoid a bigger evil later.

Next move Obama.


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