“The 1143-year-long war had been begun on false pretenses and only continued because the two races were unable to communicate. Once they could talk, the first question was ‘Why did you start this thing?’ and the answer was ‘Me?'” Though lifted from Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War–an allegorical novel of the Vietnam War–this sad conclusion would be equally apposite to an Israeli-American war with Iran.
It is perennially unmentioned that neither side believes Iranian possession of nuclear weapons will improve its strategic situation. Why, then, have negotiations been bogged down for a decade and taken so many wrong turns? The April 16th Istanbul talks produced a long-awaited shift: Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi called the negotiations “a turning point” and offered that Iran was “prepared to resolve the nuclear dispute…providing the West shows goodwill by easing sanctions.”1 On April 15th, Obama said that “we still have a window in which to resolve this conflict diplomatically. That window is closing and Iran needs to take advantage of it.”2Though Obama wasn’t privy to the Istanbul developments, his eschewing any responsibility for the U.S. to “[take] advantage of the window” reflects the continued halfhearted, torpid attempts by U.S. officials to understand the negotiating climate.
The American debate on Iran’s nuclear program is undermined by two failures of US policymakers: first, an ahistorical view of Iranian-American relations married to an inability to consider Iranian viewpoints; second, an ignoring or deliberate eliding of crucial linkages between convergent policy objectives and the possibilities therein. The two mistakes are mutually reinforcing and thus especially pernicious; recourse to historical facts is discouraged if one wants to cast Iran as part of the ‘axis of evil,’ and linking Iranian and American policy objectives is impossible if Iranian aims are misunderstood. These two distortions in thought preclude use of a potent, untried policy option: the partial cessation of sanctions against Iran. Suspension of extant sanctions, rather than threat of new sanctions, has never been tried. It is time for the U.S. to use the diplomatic leverage it has stored in the longstanding patchwork of sanctions.
Former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian summarized US-Iran negotiations since 2003 and concluded “the United States missed great opportunities…but both sides would have needed a stronger commitment to changing the direction” of US-Iran relations.3 Mousavian’s casting it as a cat and mouse game evocative of the Craigslist “missed opportunities” section is roughly correct, but the failure is more fundamental and deep-seated than he admits. The two administrations have never met in earnest despite recent short-term partnerships when policy objectives converged, as they did in deposing the Taliban regime in 2001. The failure to connect short-term objectives to the long-term similarity of Iranian-American Persian Gulf objectives testifies to a basic distrust of each other. Iran feels threatened, though it need not, and is acting accordingly in ways that threaten others. On the American side, this had led to an incorrect appraisal of the Iranian regime as irrational began a long time ago.
In Feb. 1980, Jimmy Carter was asked whether the 1953 removal of Mohammed Mossadegh by the CIA might be connected to the hostage crisis. He dismissed the idea as “ancient history” and added that it was not “appropriate or helpful for [him] to go into the propriety of something that happened 30 years ago.”4 That Operation Ajax played second fiddle to the American acceptance of the Shah that October is no matter; the blatant championing of ahistoricity championed by Carter set the stage for continued indifference to Iranian reasoning.
Recently, Iranian-American relations have been deteriorating since George W. Bush’s inexplicable inclusion of Iran in the axis of evil in January 2002. States of tension equal or greater to the current climate occurred in 2005 and 2007, and Iranian nuclear capabilities have been “one year away” every year since. From this history emerges an essentially cyclical process in which mainstreaming and frontpaging the issue of Iranian nuclear development occurs periodically with the hope of defining a new strategic adversary.
In 2008, campaign-trail Obama said “the danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat.” Implicit in his view that Iran “challenges us across the region” is an interesting corollary: Iranian ability to bolster the securitization of both Afghanistan and Iraq, an ability that has never been recognized or alluded by American administrations since the Iranian-American alliance in 2001. U.S. officials have been parsing Ayatollah Khameini’s garbage heap—analyzing his fatwa against nuclear weapons, for example–for a decade, yet none have talked to Iranian leaders directly. There are dozens of diplomats clamoring for a chance to sit down with Iranian negotiators,5 but politically equal dialogue can’t flourish when the American president expresses something like glee at the Iranian economy being “in shambles”6 (it isn’t, in any case).
Obama’s rhetoric toward Iran hasn’t changed since his first day in office; the thought that his “new engagement with Iran” would materialize comes from the same mindset that preemptively awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize. Secretary of State Clinton, in Dec. 2010, added that Iran can enrich uranium “once they have demonstrated that they can do so in a responsible manner.” Adopting a condescending tone—talking to Iran as a parent talks to a child—does nothing for U.S. objectives and only provides Iranian leaders clear evidence with which to shore up their anti-imperialistic propaganda campaign.
To understand the mindset of Iranian officials is not to condone any of their decisions, and if US officials could take an Iranian point-of-view, much of the mutual distrust could be dispelled. Briefly, Iran feels threatened by U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Central Asian Republics and several of the Gulf States. As Ray Tayekh notes, the March 2003 invasion of Iraq shocked the Iranian government: “Iran had fought for eight years without securing even a modest change of the boundaries, and yet in three weeks, American forces had managed to march into Baghdad.”7 Tehran reacted quite rationally by floating a generous offer to Washington soon after, only to be denied a reply by the Bush administration for no valid reason. Most likely they had mistakenly decided that Iran, like Saddam’s Iraq, could not be negotiated with or deterred.
Many Iranians remember the American allegiance with Iraq during the neighborly war, and are quick to view the U.S. as adversarial in the cases of the Stuxnet worm, scientist assassinations, allegations of an Iranian plot to murder the Saudi ambassador in late 2011 and the RQ-170 crash in October of the same year. The veracity of these allegations is immaterial to the state-controlled news organs of Iran and in public proclamations by Iranian policymakers, who have long defined their foreign policy against “The Great Satan.”
Israeli-American portrayals of Iranian policy ironically follow a similar logic. The war on terrorism, though misguided by definition, strategically self-defeating, and quixotically vague, is more importantly emotionally unsatisfactory to the public. The U.S. and Israel both share foreign policy agendas that rely on expansionist external threats for their justification. The scrambling of neoconservatives to find a worthy enemy to replace the Soviets is being repeated here on a smaller scale. Saddam Hussein has been deposed and the Taliban removed from theocratic rule; the fear of Chinese ascension is rooted in economics and thus unsexy, whilst North Korean policy options are few. This leaves Iran, publicly designated a black sheep in 2002, as the blue-ribbon winner for geopolitical villain of the US. In contrast to focus of global terrorism in the U.S, Israeli foreign policy is primarily defined against the weakening militant wings of Palestinian nationalism and the increasingly independent Hezbollah.8 Israel views Iran as an existential threat bent on regional domination and obliteration of the Jewish state; here, American and Israeli policy explicitly converge in error.
Writing in late December, Stephen Walt nimbly opened the debate by noting that the case for war is often made by presenting the “worst consequences of inaction” and the “best possible military outcomes.”9 The above inability to understand the Iranian viewpoint culminates in an absurd accounting of Iranian aims and capabilities and set the scene for overblown cases requiring military action. Core arguments levied for intervention are that a nuclear Iran would be regionally destabilizing–whether by sparking a nuclear arms race or by overt territorial aggression–and that a nuclear Iran poses an existential threat to Israel.
Etiolated though it is, the case for nuclear domino theory in the Persian Gulf is repeatedly invoked as if it were a priori true. Israeli possession of nuclear weapons since the mid-sixties has not sparked an arms race. This alone would be damning evidence, but it must be added that over half of this period was defined in Israel by Arab denial of her right to exist and in Arab states by the fear of a Greater Israel. If the ’67 or ’73 Arab-Israeli wars failed to spark a nuclear arms race, there is no reason to believe Iranian nuclear capability would trigger it.
Iran’s two primary foreign policy challenges since the inception of the Islamic Republic were Iraqi aggression under Saddam and the ascension of the Taliban, both of which have been conveniently removed by the U.S. Under Khameini, Iran has never indicated a wish for territorial expansion, excepting an occasional covetous glance at Bahrain. Notwithstanding the strengthened pariah-state friendship with Syria, there exist no potential allies for Iran in the area. The umma’s opinion on Iranian leadership has been dropping for two years in light of its hypocrisy in championing the sovereignty of Islamic consciousness whilst meddling in the affairs of Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar.Additionally, the fear of loose nukes has been proven unfounded in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Pakistan–a half-dozen countries with far greater instability and disorganization than Iran.
The cornerstone of real friendship, which the US and Israel claim to have, is honesty and an obligation to alert a friend when her beliefs and actions are self-damaging. The allegation that Iran poses an existential threat to Iran is plangently proclaimed, always unchallenged, and completely false. Insofar as Iran and Israel are pitted against one another, the ideological battleground is Palestinian nationalism, not Israel’s right to exist. Iran is aware that striking Israel would kill millions of Palestinians and ruin the Wailing Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and the al-Aqsa Mosque, and is also cognizant of the disparate conventional military strength vis a vis Israel itself and the broad-based coalition a strike on Tel Aviv would engender.
Thus, fears of the “worst possible consequences of inaction” are wholly unfounded and have prevented genuine negotiation. But even for those with a less dire view of Iranian capabilities and aims, the championed policy in the last eight years has been increasingly harsh and interconnected sanctions despite no clear evidence of their efficacy.
Professor Kayhan Barzegar has aptly summarized the effect sanctions to date: they have “led Iran to build approximately 8,000 more centrifuges, increase the degree of enrichment by 20 percent, establish a new nuclear site, and move many enrichment activities to a site at Fordo…Iran has also recently expressed its determination to use 20 percent indigenous enriched fuel in the Tehran Research Reactor in the near future. Iran’s threat last month to shut down the Strait of Hormuz is another case in point.”10 The painfully obvious conclusion is that ratcheting up sanctions has failed to moderate Iranian actions and backfired in two ancillary ways. First, sanctions have pushed Iran toward Beijing and New Delhi: in 2004 Iran and China signed a $75b LNG deal over 25 years and soon after conducted a similar oil deal with India worth $40b.11 Second, sanctions furnish convenient evidence to support an anti-American narrative that Ahmedinejad and Khameini need dearly to retain power. The actions taken to forestall Iranian nuclear capability and Iranian responses to same have combined in a mutually harmful downward spiral.
To end this spiral, U.S. officials must realize the potential benefits of cooperation, not just the hypothetical ramifications of Iranian nuclear weaponry. Several Iranian objectives coincide with American objectives: a stable Iraq and Afghanistan are desirable to both, and American military efforts would prove far more successful if coupled with Iranian diplomatic exertion in Shi’a Iraq and Western Afghanistan.
The geopolitical negotiating weight of Turkey is renowned; as a high-functioning Islamic democracy, it can go places and say things the U.S. simply cannot. Iran can fill a similar role in the Persian Gulf as its geography and influence extend to areas of conflict in which the U.S. is failing. Levantine stability is desired by both, and both Palestinian nationhood and Israeli security cannot be realized without the mutually reinforcing efforts of both the U.S. and Iran. Iran is aiding the Assad regime economically and militarily in ways that complicate efforts toward ceasefire and future regime change. Nothing can be done in Syria without effects in Iran and vice versa, but an obvious corollary is that pressure can be exerted on Assad if Iran through withdrawal of Iranian support, which might be coaxed out of Khameini if tensions with the West dissipated.
The debate has sufficiently addressed perturbations in the global oil system following an Israeli-American strike and complications in the Straits of Hormuz, but has omitted analysis of Iranian leadership and populace responses. Most likely the leadership would coalesce, though effects on the populace will be disparate, with the possibility that nationalism might trumpdesire for regime change. What one can say is that war will provide, as it did in 1980-81, a convenient cover for further repression of democratic dissidents in Iran, effectively halting the growth of the Green Revolution since 2009. Over a million of Iran’s children were thrown away in the late Khomeini’s intransigence, and the remaining popular contempt for the regime citizens becomes clear when one combines opinion polls with anecdotal evidence like the exiled Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and reports from the departed Christopher Hitchens. The inchoate protest movement hasn’t been effective yet largely for the same reasons Khomeini was able to hijack the 1979 revolution: the protestors aren’t ready to commit to the level of violence that the clergy did and does. Iranian citizens do not desire imposed regime change and American support for the democratic dissidents compromises their effectiveness, as journalist Stephen Kinzer has noted.12
The best course of action is thus to halt the militarized portion of the Iranian nuclear program through negotiation and allow regime change to come about internally. Mutual concessions should first include an immediate change in Iranian enrichment policies in return for the selective lifting of sanctions. Western recognition of Iran’s ability to continue its peaceful nuclear energy program can precede complete opening of all nuclear-associated facilities—especially Parchin—to the IAEA. Compliance with inspections and enrichment restrictions would be coupled with the cancellation of impending sanctions. The Syrian crisis is too volatile to be useful in negotiations; instead, a joint recognition of overlapping policy objectives in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Arab-Israeli conflict should be pursued.
It’s worth here quoting Dean Acheson on the “block-headed British”13 in 1953: “Never had so few lost so much so stupidly and so fast.” The U.S. runs the risk of inheriting this expression if it fails to reverse its policy toward Iran. If this is going to be the New American Century, the U.S. And Iran must not only reset their relations, but restore embassies and continually defuse adversarial tensions. Iran cannot continue as a pariah state, and American geopolitical goals—the flourishing of Iraqi democracy, global oil stability, Syrian regime change, Arab-Israeli peace, and some semblance of order in Afghanistan—are unmanageable without the cooperation of Iran. Our policy should reflect this.