Dec 11 2011

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1941 and Iran

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Deal or No Deal?

Everyone remembers Pearl Harbor.

But while Pearl Harbor brought the US into WWII, it did not immediately bring the US into conflict with Germany and Italy.

After all, neither Germany or Italy had attacked the US (the undeclared war in the Atlantic against the U-boats  notwithstanding), and thus  Franklin Roosevelt’s historic speech to Congress on December 8th only asked for a declaration of war on Japan.

It was actually Hitler himself, invoking his treaty commitments to the Japanese, who solved Roosevelt’s security quandary by declaring war on the US – on December 11th – 70 years ago today.

That four day interregnum is worth a pause for reflection.

Today, looking in the rear-view mirror, it is easy moralize that there was no acceptable political compromise with Hitler’s Germany, and that war, while tragic and destructive, was necessary for the protection of freedom and democracy.

But that wasn’t the view from the street in 1941.

Isolationist America might have been fired-up for war with Japan, which had attacked America, but Germany and Italy were a different matter entirely, despite their existential threat to Western values and way of life.

Hitler might have complicated Roosevelt’s  life substantially by forcing him to accept the political costs of declaring war on Germany and Italy without any provocation – despite the threat he represented – a decision that might not have come as quickly as December 1941 if left to the Americans to make the first move.

I call attention here because it is that very same dilemma that animates US policy with Iran today.

Two years ago, I wrote about Iran and the challenge confronting our then new President.

Read it now and consider whether the United States can wait for the Iranians to make the first move.

“Peace in Our Time”

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

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 is a regional trouble-maker. Iran insists on a nuclear power program, despite its mass reserves of oil, close ties to client state Syria, 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. Indeed, Iranian threats against Israel, voiced time and again, are a source of uncertainty and 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:

First, 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 ushered in 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 had become Shia.

What is most 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, translated through Arabic, 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 descendant republics of the old Soviet Union, autocratic and unstable. To the West is Iraq with its American-sponsored government and beyond, the American friendly regimes in Jordan and Egypt.  To the South, you see Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, Sunni and strongly allied with the West.

If you took away the country names and looked only to the geography, would the desire for nuclear weapons as a tool for ultimate protection seem so absurd? Certainly countries such as Poland, Russia and Vietnam would understand these historical, geographic concerns.

To these historical issues we must add a fundamental ideological point, the rise 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.

Coming to power by overthrowing an order requires the revolutionaries to hold true to their revolutionary
credentials, particularly if there is a fissure between the government and the governed.

Khomeini’s anti-Shah credentials result in two key outcomes; a state-led hostility toward the forces that supported the Shah – the United States and Israel. And second, an ideological move by the Khomeini
regime to revive and instill Islamic unity, as a tool to burnish Iran’s Islamic bone fides and place it in a leadership position in doing so.

Thus the rise of the Islamic Republic and the theologically-based politics and foreign affairs it embodies, poses an enormous regional risk based on its interpretation of history and a recognition of the fundamentals of its revolution.

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, rather radically, through abstract values and principles, instead of 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 was no post -WWII disagreement that he couldn’t charm away with Stalin, to eternal American regret at Yalta. Reagan 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.

Through the Reagan administration, critics wailed that the Administration was the first since WWII not to meet with a Soviet leader in its first term. The lack of discussion did not in any way stop the collapse of Soviet communism seven years later, but the “negotiations debate” raged on through 1984.

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

But the truth is that unless there is a common framework of understanding, talking does not, of itself, restrain powers, prevent miseries, or resolve disputes.  But with regard to Iran, this fact has not deterred continued Western attempts at engagement.

The Grand Bargain:

All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, there is almost 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.

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.

But the thinking goes that only the United States can cut the “Grand Bargain.”

What might such a deal 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.

These aren’t easy terms for either side, but they are the stuff of a real compromise.

But the overarching fact here is notthat there are tangible terms to bargain from. Rather, it is a recognition that only one side is in a position to deliver on its stipulations and the other is not.

Specifically, the US has the power to deliver on the hypothetical elements of a deal with Iran. There would be a domestic political uproar. Lawmakers, for instance, may not like an, but it would be profound coming from Obama. Involving Iran constructively as a regional power and lifting sanctions unilaterally and multilaterally would function as a source of confidence building.

No, 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 Iran, is that its revolutionary roots require a foreign bogeyman, and that any external political entente undermines that. Kennan recommended the strategy that became containment, which succeeded 44 years later when the Soviet regime imploded on its own contradictions.

The Iranians can talk ad nauseum, butthey cannot cut a deal, because institutionally, it 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 ideological; 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 not only on ideology but 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.

But if the Iranians were to go “off-line,” about an actual bomb program, it would quickly devolve into talk of national insults and grousing about double standards in which Iran is sanctioned while the Israelis and Pakistanis, who conducted their own clandestine programs to deploy nuclear weapons, enjoy aid and trade from the US and the West.

So, in the final analysis, the Iranians, for all the hopes of their interlocutors in the West, have little or
no institutional incentive to compromise.

They cannot curb their regional ambitions for historical and revolutionary reasons.

They cannot cease support for Islamic liberation movements without jeopardizing their own revolutionary credentials.

They have every reason to continue to block American influence in the region, and complicate Israeli security.

For all the talk, they cannot give on the nuclear program and the option for a nuclear weapon.

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 had withered and that 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 and pressure on the regime as the best of options.

But what about President Obama?

Once you realize that the Iranian regime is not in a position to deliver, the negotiation rapidly turns to a
concessions 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.

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.

1)      A de facto recognition of the role of Hezbollah in Lebanon as a legitimate political party.

2)      Support talks for a Fatah Hamas power sharing deal for the Palestinians.

3)      Tacitly 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 destabilizing consequences.

But the consideration and implementation of any of these measures fail the test of seriousness and time because in the end, they address only the symptoms and not the disease.

Iran cannot deliver.

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

Time is slipping.  IAEA chief Mohammad El Baredei said today that Iran is a year away from building a nuclear device.

That is Obama’s window.

We have reached the nexus where revolutionary Islamic ambition and national pride runs headlong into US foreign policy priorities in the region and significant security issues.

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.

This Journal bets that the Iranians won’t compromise meaningfully, and will continue to run out the clock in their drive for nuclear weapons, rooted in the limitations of their own revolutionary origins which are their pillars of power.

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.

Or worse, will he just punt.

Next move Obama.









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