Hillary and a Great America

A “great” America would not be one that practiced war, racism, sexism, or elite financial crime. Hillary has been “playing it safe” the whole election and is consequently in real danger of losing, but she could, with one week to go, articulate an image of a truly “great” America. If she cannot herself see this possible future, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Russell Feingold could team up to write it for her. But Hillary needs to take ownership in public.

With one week to go before election, if Hillary wants to win, she should demonstrate that she deserves to win, and here is the speech I would like her to make:

The next President will face three critical and immediate challenges.

  1. Financial Crime. Elite financial crime has undermined the integrity of the American since the man-made 2007 recession. Senators Warren, Senator Sanders, and I have agreed on a plan that, if elected, I will promote immediately to minimize the danger of a new financial collapse by bringing the guilty to trial and eliminating “too big to fail” financial corporations that can blackmail society for their private gain.
  2. Syrian Civil War. I hereby state publicly that the concept of a no-fly zone over Syria, albeit perhaps a good idea when I first proposed it, now faces a new reality on the ground in Syria and is no longer a safe, logical option as a unilateral U.S. plan. Syria’s crisis must not be allowed to inflame a new major power war. i I will promote coordinated U.S.-Russian negotiations to consider a joint no-fly zone as well as other ideas for minimizing violence while simultaneously focusing U.S. policy on aiding Syrian society to recover, both by helping refugees and by providing aid to such non-sectarian and defense-oriented social groups as may be identified.
  3. Police Brutality Against Democracy Activists. A shameful violation of American values is currently playing out in North Dakota. The prima facie case of police and corporate collusion against popular rights demands the immediate and forceful attention of the White House and the FBI. Rather than speak further, I am today boarding a plane for a personal inspection of the confrontation between Americans defending their rights and the power of Big Oil.

I, Hillary Clinton, will–if elected–take action on these three issues my first day in office.

 

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Quagmire

Obama did not exactly say, “Putin, trust me, we Americans know what it means to get stuck in a quagmire, so take this warning to heart.” Nor, of course, did Putin take it that way. Pity.

President Obama noted publicly that “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire, and it won’t work.” Obama will quite probably be proven correct, but to understand the outrageous hypocrisy of the remark, simply remove the names by abstracting as follows:

An attempt by [a global power and a regional client] to prop up a [vicious regional dictator] and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire, and it won’t work.

There was, for you young readers who haven’t studied your history, once a guy named Leonid who discovered this for himself in Afghanistan. Too bad Leonid was too old to write a history, for we are all still suffering from the consequences two generations later, and it would have been considerate of him to have warned us against repeating his mistake. Now, to be fair, I suspect Obama has in fact read some history, judging from his path-breaking (we hoped) Cairo speech way back at the now long forgotten beginning of his White House years, but in the rush of trying to run the world, one overlooks even the most obvious of lessons, which leads to having to rush all the more to learn them all over again…which brings us to the hypocrisy of Obama’s pot calling Putin’s kettle “black.”

This very week, as Putin solidifies his military position in Syria and flattens Aleppo (wasn’t that once a city that supported Assad?), Obama, who has been vigorously arming Riyadh with the bombs it has been using the past couple years to flatten Yemen, actually opened fire against one side in the very long Yemeni civil war. Did any Houthi imagine that Obama would respond to a Houthi rocket attack on a highly threatening U.S. destroyer sneaking around off the Yemeni coast by apologizing for the havoc wrought across the world’s most abused society by U.S. bombs over the past two years? [Note: it remains unclear whether it actually was Houthis rather than some false flag element hoping to provoke a thoughtlessly violent American response.] Bad judgment by the Houthis it may have been, and yet, fighting for your political rights against the combined might of Western bombs and Western-supplied Saudi jets for two years and then watching a U.S. destroyer, armed to the teeth, sticking its nose where it did not belong (was it…no surely not…inside Yemeni waters???) must get frustrating. More to the point, to quote a certain U.S. politician, all this is going to get the short-tempered superpower that just moved from the background of the Western campaign to manipulate the Yemeni civil war into the limelight “stuck in a quagmire.”

Follow-Up:

Dear Donald, Dear Hillary, “If elected, will you continue the Obama policy of supporting the Saudi aerial war against one side in the Yemeni civil war?”

Positive-Sum Foreign Policy: Modeling Introduction

While searching for positive-sum foreign policy offering enduring results (because they are supported by all sides)  may be good advice for policy-makers, the process of designing such a policy is hindered by prejudice and emotion, [see “Designing Positive-Sum Foreign Policy“] not to mention incomplete information about the adversary and pressure from allies with private agendas. So a little formal modeling may spruce up the busy policy-maker’s thinking. It so happens that among all the many sophisticated techniques for analyzing international affairs there is one so straightforward that it really can be done with a pencil on a napkin…and this approach can quickly facilitate identifying some major foreign policy blunders and opportunities in contemporary Mideast affairs.

Far from being a naively idealistic dream, the search for positive-sum outcomes in foreign policy rests on a foundation of cold logic, a conclusion that may be easier to accept by using a very simple modeling technique whose magic, aside from its simplicity, is that to employ it naturally filters out emotion and prejudice, revealing the logical skeleton of truth. This old technique, that requires nothing more than a napkin and pencil, is the Venn Diagram. Let the foreign policy goals of State A be listed in one circle and those of State B in another, then see if any overlap exists. If so, diplomats have room to work. And, indeed, how can at least some overlap not exist? Do not all regimes wish to remain in power, do not all societies wish to survive? Perhaps not; suicidal political groups could exist, and if you judge that to be the case, then perhaps your model will contain two separate circles, and so be it…unless you choose to question the veracity of your model. More likely, by stating goals in general terms, e.g., the desire for security or development or prestige, ground for making deals will be discovered. The approach is rather more logical than just snarling that the adversary is “evil” or “crazy,” both characterizations conceivably true but almost certainly a source of confusion for a policy-maker trying to achieve something.

An initial Venn Diagram of Iranian-Turkish relations might show disagreement over the desired composition of a future Iraqi (or Syrian or Lebanese or Yemeni) regime but agreement on the goals of oil trading and border security. This logically flawed diagram should provoke an immediate protest: the defined goals are not on the same level, since the goals on which they agree are general (easy to agree on) while the conflicting goal (nature of the regime) is precise.

A "Mental Model" Based on Judgment of Iranian and Turkish Goals

A “Mental Model” Based on Judgment of Iranian and Turkish Goals

Now comes time for creative diplomacy. Can the goals be redefined in a mutually acceptable manner to state that Turkey would like Sunni autonomy along its border while Iran would like Shi’i autonomy along its border? Their preferences, so stated, not only seem logical but feasible, given similar preferences on the part of many Iraqis actually living in those regions, changing the situation from an insolvable contradiction between Iraq’s two  powerful neighbors into a reasonable proposal for shifting the Iraqi regime from centralized to decentralized with broad domestic and regional support.

By redefining the goals of Iraq’s two neighbors from trying to control Iraq, not their actual goal, to border security via empowerment of friendly populations, Ankara and Tehran can enhance their states’ security, please friendly Iraqi populations (further enhancing their security), and perhaps enhance the stability of Iraq, affording a long-term second-order benefit. The enlargement of the area of agreement in the foreign policy goals of the two states additionally promotes a cycle of cooperation that will facilitate cooperation on additional

Mideast Venn Diagrams - Redefining Goals

Different but compatible goals…and a much less hostile relationship

issues after some delay as the leaders and bureaucracies on each side become increasingly accustomed to considering those on the other side as potential partners. The critical shift achieved by redefining the adversaries’ goals is to move them by making them more precise from mutually exclusive to different without being mutually exclusive, a process requiring no compromise–just a little creative thinking.

Nothing follows automatically from a diagram, of course. The red question marks in the center with arrows suggesting possible movement by each side toward a compromise solution signal where the real work of the diplomats will occur, but this work will be greatly facilitated by having a diagram that puts on paper the critical concept, all too often cast aside by prejudiced adversaries (especially those operating from a self-perceived position of strength), that a way forward can be imagined.­­­ If dismissed or not imagined, the positive-sum compromise that could resolve the conflict will not even be discussed.

Since the restructuring of the Iraqi government is the core issue under negotiation in this model, Iraq needs to be added to the model. Iraq’s role in conflict resolution is likely to be greatly influenced by both the Islamic State threat and the regional hydrocarbon trade regime envisioned by Ankara and Tehran.

The Islamic State, the latest incarnation of Sunni extremism and prime claimant to the Sunni dream of a restored caliphate, is also the latest challenger to the modern concept of international law. International law may be honored more in the breech than sincerely even by global leaders, but it is as close as the global political system comes to having an ideology to inform its interstate political structure. The Islamic State by its ideal of a caliphate and the open pride it takes in its terrorist behavior

A minimum of four states need to be incorporated in even the simplest Mideast model

A minimum of four states need to be incorporated in even the simplest Mideast model

(which in practice may only be slightly worse than the state terrorism practiced from time to time by numerous major states) challenges the global political system both on ideological and structural grounds. It is already central to the analysis of the foreign policies of Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad, and Damascus, four ruling factions but hardly any longer representing four real states. United by the pressure of the Islamic State, the four areas formerly constituting the states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria seem the smallest analytical unit possible in the region for the realistic modeling of interstate relations.

Even this basic model of the Mideast, as riven by internal contradictions as it may be, is unified by the common desire of all ruling elites for survival. Yet, even at this simplest level, actual international behavior seems somehow to be missing the target. If all four want to survive, should this elemental fact not be better exploited to persuade them to compromise? A second fact is also obvious: all four want to participate. Nothing alienates a regime from the international community and transforms it into a troublemaker so surely as marginalization. By definition, he who rules desires to participate. Yes, theMideast Venn Diagrams - Common Interest efforts to marginalize, by refusing to negotiate until after receiving a concession or by refusing to invite one player to a regional conference, are conscious efforts to exert pressure, but such blatant discrimination can hardly be expected to elicit sincerely accommodating attitudes. And yet, foreign policy failure, based on precisely this behavior, follows foreign policy failure. The four ruling parties share at least these two goals: survival and participation.

How might this knowledge be used? Consider the statement: “all regimes want to survive.” Once again, the precise formulation matters. To say, “all leaders want to survive” has the wrong focus – on individuals rather than groups, thus reducing room for negotiation, for it is much easier to accept the continued participation of a faction than a specific hated leader. There may well be members of the faction who legitimately represent a portion of the population and do not share the blame for all the leader’s crimes. In any case, the leader is the symbol. An international argument over the future of Assad will lead to war; an international argument over the continued participation of Alawites in Syrian politics is quite a different thing.

As for participation, no state will support an international system that rejects it. The international political system was incrementally, experimentally created by the regimes that existed to facilitate communication. To refuse to communicate evokes nothing so much as the spoiled brat who sulks in the corner: not appropriate behavior for the leader of the system! Such tactics are not calculated to inspire confidence, trust, or gratitude, nor should they: they are the epitome of insincerity. The tactical goal of regimes trying to create a better world should be to entice all actors who exist (unless indeed the intent is in fact to exterminate them) to participate, to communicate. This is the first step toward determining how to deal with them. So even as the model gets increasingly complicated (with the addition of  more states and goals) in the effort to make it more realistic, it retains a simple yet valuable core: the region at the center–tiny as it may be–representing goals common to all is the point from which the design of foreign policy should begin.

Since all share some basic goals, negotiations have a place to begin. Can the area of agreement be enlarged? Could it be enlarged via creative redefinition of goals? Can discussions move smoothly from the core area of agreement to secondary goals amenable to compromise? One of the most valuable pieces of information to be gleaned from negotiations, even if one believes them to be “useless,” may be the identification of secondary goals of your adversary that turn out to be insignificant to you. Finding one is pure gold – something to offer that the adversary wants but you can readily give away. One glaring example in recent years has been U.S. refusal to extent diplomatic recognition to Iran, traditionally a nearly automatic diplomatic procedure that simply recognizes any power that exists but which was, in a major blunder, transformed by U.S. intransigence, into an additional unnecessary obstacle to resolving U.S.-Iranian conflict. valuable U.S. possession.

Having determined that the area of common interest exists but is small, the obvious next step is to identify ways to enlarge it, not necessarily with all other actors simultaneously but certainly in ways that try to avoid losing on one side what one gains on the other…at least until one determines that all out, unconditional warfare is the only solution. Aside from that very rare situation, negotiation should be pursued diligently – it is cheaper, safer, and can offer an endless array of unpredictable benefits if pursued with ears and eyes wide open because the political arena in the adversary’s camp will always be evolving in response to invisible domestic dynamics. If one puts on the table precise and credible offers impossible in today’s political environment for the adversary to accept, they may nonetheless become attractive without warning tomorrow. There is no telling, for example, what impact over time on Tehran’s support of Assad might result from a promise by Washington to support a post-settlement Iran-Syria or Iran-Turkey hydrocarbon pipeline, to support continued Alawite participation in a new regime, or to recognize the right of Iran to maintain close ties to the new regime. Indeed, the first option, i.e., the goal of economic development, may be the big goal omitted from our list of common goals, but its priority relative to sectarian conflict and the fear of being destroyed in civil war is uncertain, so it will be dealt with separately.

Offer Iran a “Moderate” Deal

When talking about Iran, U.S. political labels merely confuse Americans. Rouhani will not act moderate because he “is” moderate but because and only because the U.S. offers Iran a “moderate” deal so couched as to be of clear benefit to Iran. Continue reading

Surrender

The famous letter sent by Cheney and others to the White House late in Clinton’s presidency advocating a global “take charge” foreign policy made quite clear the kind of America the neo-cons wanted and for a decade they got it: violence amazingly profitable for a handful of CEOs, vast losses of U.S. blood and treasure, and a string of Muslim societies trashed and radicalized. What kind of Americaequivocating Obama wants still remains a mystery, and his Iranpolicy does little to solve that mystery.

If Obama wants to shine an American beacon of hope to all aspiring to peace and democracy, his careful avoidance of a positive-sum outcome in relations with Iranis likely to be the death knell of such aspirations. Whether Iran is even half as significant as Washington lackeys of the Israeli right wing make it out to be, the wild-eyed rhetoric of this faction and its hypnotic hold over Washington have made (relatively) little Iran the symbol of defiance to the American superpower. Bloodying Iran’s nose has become the measure of manhood on the Potomac. These are not the men who defeated Japanand met the victorious Soviets in Berlinor remotely the men who succeeded in sailing between the Scylla of Soviet expansion and the Charybdis of World War III. Men on the Potomac stand short in the 21stcentury.
Nevertheless, the fact is that Tel Aviv and Washington have handed Tehran an image it did not have the remotest chance of obtaining by itself: any country capable of inspiring such fear on the part of the world’s only superpower and the Mideast region’s nuclear monopolist must be a giant! If little (by all standard measures of state power) Irancan defy the U.S., then who will ever again be impressed by its image?
By essentially doing nothing, just following a classic “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of nuclear ambiguity, little Iranhas tied the world’s last superpower in knots. If, in the end, the humiliated superpower destroys Iran, it will prove exactly nothing…except that the superpower cannot even control itself, much less its pushy allies or little, irritating regimes that demand recognition. Giants gain no credit for smashing mosquitoes.
Conversely, if Obama wants to turn the neo-con aberration into America’s course for the future, creating a permanent violence-addicted Imperial America, his Iranpolicy seems likely to puncture that balloon as well. If it was the “greatest generation” that won WWII and laid the foundation via self-restraint for a half century of peace, historians will see those who ran the U.S. during the first 15 years of the 21st century as the “dwarf generation:” a pathetic, unimaginative bunch of toadies for out-of-control capitalist greed destroying everything Americans have labored for two centuries to construct. If this generation manages to turn Iran into a large Iraq or Somaliaor Palestine or Yemenor Afghanistan, exactly who will sigh with admiration? Will Turks and Indians and Brazilians strive to emulate America? Will the politicians of Moscow and Beijingtremble with fear at a global superpower that finally, after 30 years, succeeds in punishing Iranand once again forcing it into submission? On the other hand, if Washingtonfails to curb Tehran’s penchant for independence even after all this sturm und drang, then what? The whole world will be laughing.
To be fair, Washingtonpolicymakers may well be putting great effort into seeking a solution that avoids both Iranian militarization of its nuclear technology and open war. Maybe. But even if so, effort by itself does not suffice at their pay grade. Policymakers, to deserve the power they wield, must also have vision, and none is detectable on the Potomac today.
Precisely, policymakers need a vision of the kind of world they hope to create. Iranis not Hitler or the USSRor Genghis Khan or the 7th century Arab expansion or any of the greats of yore (Alexander, Cyrus). Iranis a political mirage, a puffed up image in the eye of the beholder of a much smaller and more distant reality. Irandoes pose a small potential military challenge, but a host of options are available to Washington were Washingtonto decide that persuading Iranto forego nukes was really the objective. More important, Iranposes a political challenge, but so do Russia, China, Pakistan, Israel, and many others. Yet Washington has chosen to replace the “10-foot-tall” Soviets with Ahmadinejad as the “main enemy.” Like a man crawling across the desert desperate for water, Washington politicians are desperate for a “mission,” which they sadly interpret to mean an “enemy” and absurdly identify as the Islamic Republic. A far better mission for a superpower would be the positive articulation of the kind of world one wants to create. Were that done, it would immediately be apparent that the road to glory does not go through Tehran.
If Ahmadinejad really wants to tie Washingtonin knots, he should snap his fingers and move Iranto a different dimension. Without poor Iranto hate, what would all the little men on the Potomacdo? Not one of them would have a clue what the goal should be, and no two of them would agree on anything whatsoever, not even on what to argue about first. The last figment of unity gone, they would be running in circles, tripping all over each other, until each and every one of them was stuck in the mud that lines the Potomac’s banks. Then everyone on earth would see that there really was no superpower at all, and Ahmadinejad could safely come back to our dimension again. 

Surrender

Washington has deployed even more military forces against Iranand intensified its economic war against Iran, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard generals have launched a rhetorical broadside against Washington, and Israel has again threatened to commit aggression against Iran.

Iran’s egregious insult of pointing out the obvious—that it can threaten the massive array of U.S.military bases that have come to surround it since the neo-con push for an Imperial America—is a starving fox poking around a grizzly’s catch. The ability of Iran to respond to attack by hitting the bases comes as no surprise and while its articulation of the threat may play well in Tehran, it is otherwise is likely only to empower the Israeli-American war party, the grizzly pretending that the fox is threatening its existence by trying to steal scraps.
The egregious nature of Washington’s behavior—ratcheting up both military and economic pressure against a Tehran that is doing nothing new—is of a totally different order. Imperial Americaunder Democrats is proving hard to distinguish from Imperial America under neo-cons: be sure you have a new war ready (Iranfor both Obama and Bush) before you end the old war you are currently fighting (Afghanistanfor Obama; Iraqfor Bush). Keep tensions at a fever pitch. Distract voters from the mess at home.
One can only wonder at the idea of distracting voters. Does a man whose bank has cheated him out of his home really not care as long as he can cheer U.S./Israeli aggression against yet another Muslim society? Not only does such a strategy on Obama’s part make the assumption that the American voter is extremely ignorant, it plays right into the hands of the Republicans and the even more dangerous expansionist faction in Israel – the greater the tensions, the easier it is to argue that “nothing less than the immediate destruction of XXX can save the world!”
The Washington Post betrayed the lack of sincerity in Washington’s position, advocating that  “Like any good pugilist, Washington should follow the heavy blow of oil sanctions with further unrelenting pressure.” The author insults the intelligence of his readers by his childish comparison of a boxing match to U.S.-Iranian relations. Perhaps the analogy is indeed apt in describing the bias of Washington decision-makers, however, for they do indeed appear to sum up the relationship in their minds as a battle to the death. For their own self-respect, as long as they refuse to offer Iran an honorable way out (security, participation in world affairs as an equal, and independence), they must insist that the relationship is a zero-sum battle until one side scores a knock-out. 
Iran, meanwhile, is trapped: Washingtonwill not offer a deal because, egged on by a sneering Netanyahu, Washington does not want a “deal;” Washingtonwants Iran to surrender. Perhaps the New York Times finds it appropriate to interpret rising U.S. military pressure as primarily designed to persuade Israel not to start a war, but the timing immediately following yet another round of talks in which Washington apparently chose again not to offer Iran a balanced, compromise deal suggests that the main message Iran should hear—and certainly the message it will hear—is a demand that it play by Washington rules. The talks recently concluded in Istanbulwere technical-level talks; following them with renewed military threats makes little sense if Washingtongenuinely wants a solution. The purpose of technical-level talks is to pave the way for a political solution, not achieve it; that is the job of senior policy-makers.
Washington’s behavior suggests a more ominous interpretation: Iranmust confirm without qualification that Israelis and will forever remain Master of the Mideast Universe. Recognition of Israel’s right to a regional nuclear monopoly backed up by its already overwhelming conventional military superiority resulting from the open arms pipeline from the U.S. and in the context of its blank check authorization to tell other countries what arms they are allowed to possess and to attack any who break its rules means that no country in the region but Israel shall be permitted independence.
But independence, for Iran, is the whole ball game. Iranhas been struggling mightily for a century to reemerge from its recent obscurity and define for itself in its own terms a path forward. Nukes are not Tehran’s goal; its goal is international respect as a player whose voice needs to be listened to. Tehranplays its nuclear card because that is the only way to get Washington’s attention. If Iranends up building the bomb, Tel Aviv and Washington will be to blame for teaching it the lesson that the big boys sneer at everyone who lacks the bomb. Iran’s immediate enemy, Saddam’s Iraq, has vanished only to be replaced by a new string of U.S.bases and an armada of U.S.ships that serve no purpose except to threaten it with nuclear annihilation. Meanwhile, Israelcontinues to swallow those pieces of Palestineit did not digest in 1949 and has now defined Iranas its main enemy. How can Tehranensure Iranian national security except by playing the nuclear card? Washingtonis not offering a rational deal–a trade of terminating its economic war against Iran in return for nuclear transparency—because nuclear transparency is not Washington’s goal. Washington’s goal is formal Iranian acceptance of permanent Number 2 status in the region and that indeed constitutes, for Iran, a surrender.

Three Stooges Diplomacy

Washington has deployed even more military forces against Iranand intensified its economic war against Iran, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard generals have launched a rhetorical broadside against Washington, and Israel has again threatened to commit aggression against Iran. 

Iran’s egregious insult of pointing out the obvious—that it can threaten the massive array of U.S. military bases that have come to surround it since the neo-con push for an Imperial America—sounds like the last gasp of a very insecure country under a very real threat. The ability of Iran to respond to attack by hitting the bases comes as no surprise and while its articulation of the threat may play well in Tehran, it is otherwise is likely only to empower the Israeli-American war party.
The egregious nature of Washington’s behavior—ratcheting up both military and economic pressure against a Tehran that is doing nothing new—is of a totally different order. Imperial Americaunder Democrats is proving hard to distinguish from Imperial America under neo-cons: be sure you have a new war ready (Iranfor both Obama and Bush) before you end the old war you are currently fighting (Afghanistanfor Obama; Iraqfor Bush). Keep tensions at a fever pitch. Distract voters from the mess at home.
One can only wonder at the idea of distracting voters. Does a man whose bank has cheated him out of his home really not care as long as he can cheer U.S./Israeli aggression against yet another Muslim society? Not only does such a strategy on Washington’s part make the assumption that the American voter is extremely ignorant, it plays right into the hands of the Republicans and the even more dangerous expansionist faction in Israel – the greater the tensions, the easier it is to argue that “nothing less than the immediate destruction of XXX can save the world!”
Iran, meanwhile, is trapped: Washingtonwill not offer a deal because, egged on by a sneering Netanyahu, Washington does not want a “deal;” Washingtonwants Iran to surrender. Perhaps the New York Times finds it appropriate to interpret rising U.S. military pressure as primarily designed to persuade Israel not to start a war, but the timing immediately following yet another round of talks in which Washington apparently chose again not to offer Iran a balanced, compromise deal suggests that the main message Iran should hear—and certainly the message it will hear—is a demand that it play by Washington rules. The talks concluded this week in Istanbulwere technical-level talks; following them with renewed military threats makes little sense if Washingtongenuinely wants a solution. Washington’s behavior suggests a more ominous interpretation: Iranmust confirm without qualification that Israelis and will forever remain Nuclear Master of the Mideast Universe. Recognition of Israel’s right to a regional nuclear monopoly backed up by its already overwhelming conventional military superiority and its blank check authorization to tell other countries what arms they are allowed to possess and to attack any who break its rules means that no country in the region but Israelshall be permitted independence.
But independence, for Iran, is the whole ball game. Iranhas been struggling mightily for a century to reemerge from its recent obscurity and define for itself in its own terms a path forward. Its immediate enemy, Saddam’s Iraq, has vanished only to be replaced by a new string of U.S.bases and an armada of U.S.ships that serve no purpose except to threaten it with nuclear annihilation. Meanwhile, Israelcontinues to swallow those pieces of Palestineit did not digest in 1949, and has now defined Iranas its main enemy. Washington is not offering a rational deal–a trade of terminating its economic war against Iranin return for nuclear transparency—because nuclear transparency is not Washington’s goal. Washington’s goal is formal Iranian acceptance of permanent Number 2 status in the region and that indeed constitutes, for Iran, a surrender.
U.S. voters may be somewhat distracted, but meanwhile the Three Stooges pie-throwing contest is generating dangerous momentum. How is Obama to extract himself after the election from a situation in which he has acted as though the world were in a crisis as the result of Iran’s insistence on being held to the same standards as everyone else? Will he have the guts to tangle directly with a Netanyahu facing humiliation? Will he have the creativity to defeat Netanyahu? If Obama continues to allow tensions with Iran to build and ends up giving Iran what it quite reasonably demands (to be allowed to play by the same nuclear rules as others) only to be forced to sacrifice U.S. national interests to please Netanyahu, then the end result (whatever happens to Iran) will constitute an historic humiliation of the U.S. Some may think Americans will deserve it, but a triumphant semi-fascist and militant Israel humiliating the U.S. will make the world a very unpleasant place for everyone.

Mutual Transparency Needed to End the U.S.-Iran Dispute

The Western-Iranian nuclear road-show, for it hardly seems to merit the term “negotiations,” continues in Iran’s backyard. Tehran and Washington may insist on slapping each other in the face at every opportunity, but the region has changed greatly with the demise of Iran’s bitter enemy Saddam and the rise of Shi’i rule in Iraq.

Judging from public reports, Iran is absolutely correct to complain of a lack of balance in the Western negotiating stance. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is the West’s treaty, its rules for managing nuclear technology, yet the West is violating its own treaty by demanding that Iran sign unique terms not provided for by that treaty. Worse, the West is doing so without recognizing the rogue status of Israel, which has a massive stockpile of nuclear weapons by all accounts yet refuses to sign the treaty. Finally, Iran will need very clear guarantees of what it will receive if it accepts the special constraints the U.S. is trying to impose. At what point will the U.S. stop trying regime change? At what point will the U.S. stop publicly condemning it? At what point will the U.S. grant it diplomatic recognition? At what point will all economic warfare against Iran be terminated? And those are just the negative issues on which the U.S. must concede completely. Beyond that come positive moves – security guarantees, trade, coordination on Afghanistan and Iraq, anti-drug cooperation, negotiation over rules for sharing the Persian Gulf.


Western apologists for the West’s hardline stance are, judging from public reports, correct that Iran is not making a sincere effort in the talks either. According to Tehran Times[5/23/12], Iran “offered a five-point package of proposals verbally on nuclear and non-nuclear issues during the negotiations.” The issue is far too serious to be approached with such unprofessionalism. Both sides have clear grievances. Iran’s behavior gives the impression that it is playing for time and hiding plans for a nuclear breakout, while the West is demanding discriminatory concessions while evidently pretending to ignore Iran’s many legitimate reasons for dissatisfaction. Any number of miscalculations could lead to consequences harmful to the world as a whole. This is no time for casual verbal offers that cannot be pinned down for serious discussion in a context of hypocritical public propaganda campaigns.


Such tactics merely empower extremists on both sides. Washington should realize that Iran has thus far behaved with moderation; if the West continues to provoke it, Iran could do much more to make life unpleasant. Iran’s foreign policy is markedly moderate in comparison to that of the U.S. or Israel: it invades no one, it has no nuclear weapons and thus is certainly not threatening to use them, it has no foreign bases. Iran should realize that the extremists on the Western side that it so likes to sneer at have their fingers on nuclear triggers. The two sides are playing a fool’s game. Neither side seems to have any confidence in the willingness of the other to negotiate seriously, setting up a negative-sum dynamic in which both sides are losing. 


It is bad enough when politicians play a zero-sum game in which they reject compromises that allow each side to benefit and instead demand solutions that leave the adversary punished, humiliated, and vowing revenge. But when politicians play a negative-sum game, in which both sides are harmed, one has a perfect picture of unprofessionalism. The politicians of course have their reasons. Obama fears Republican electoral exploitation of any demonstration that he is thinking rather than flexing his muscles like a true cowboy. Given the even more vicious nature of Iranian politics, Ahmadinejad, already on the defensive for numerous domestic reasons, may fear for his life if he makes too many concessions. So both societies risk proxy wars, economic sabotage, terrorism (by Mossad, by the MEK, or perhaps by Iran), and even nuclear attack (by Israel) that would float a cloud of fallout (literally and figuratively) across the globe. The two sides are indeed playing a fool’s game.


No one expects the West to make all its concessions on day one, but it must offer some recognition of 1) Iran‘s legal rights, 2) Israel‘s nuclear rogue status, 3) and exactly what Iran would get for accepting any part of the highly discriminatory rules the U.S. wishes to impose on Iran. So far, the West gives no appearance of intending to negotiate anything other than Iran‘s surrender. That ain’t happening; it is a recipe for disaster. Moreover, if it somehow did occur, it would only set the stage for a more serious subsequent crisis: Israeli extremists would be emboldened and all Iranians would be infuriated. 


As for negotiating a genuine solution, the Western position is still not even close to the starting gate. If the Obama Administration has any clear idea at all of what would constitute a “solution” to the U.S.-Iranian dispute, it is keeping that idea very, very close to its chest, and that is a tragedy, because what the world needs now is transparency: Iranian nuclear transparency and American transparency on a vision of how a genuine U.S.-Iranian détente might be made to work.

Winning Coalition for the U.S.-Iranian Nuclear Dispute

As Tehran, Washington, and Tel Aviv maneuver, the world is trying to figure out what the three sides really want, but there are no “three sides.” The conflict pits zero-sum militarists against positive-sum moderates.

All three sides are constantly in flux internally and in relation to each other, so even if the world knew all the secrets of each, where they are headed would still be unknowable for they do not know themselves. Yet logic can carry us rather far once we abandon the hopelessly simplistic image of “good” and “bad” regimes.
Starting with Tehran, it seems fairly safe to assume that at least three distinct perspectives are well represented within the factionalized and bitterly competitive ruling elite: 1) nuclear arms are “haram;” 2) nuclear arms per se may be risky but nuclear ambiguity is a great bargaining chip; 3) neither national security nor the realization of national goals is possible in a nuclear world without nuclear arms (i.e., this third faction may in turn be composed of a faction that feels the bomb is the only way to defend Iran and another faction that is committed to the high risk road of international adventure). It is illogical to assume that a fundamentalist religious regime claiming its right to rule is derived from God would repeatedly and publicly insist that nuclear arms are evil if it were committed to building them, so it is only logical to assume that some measure of genuine regime antipathy for owning nuclear arms truly exists. To the degree that nuclear ambiguity serves as a catalyst for persuading adversaries to negotiate in good faith, i.e., to offer something Tehran really wants, the Tehran faction that consider nuclear arms haramand the faction that is open to a pragmatic, positive-sum bargain will be thrown together, and Iranian media are replete with indications that the latter faction should not be discounted.

Hossein Mousavian–former Iranian nuclear negotiator with ties to Ali Larijani, a background of cooperating with the U.S. as an Iranian official, and now living in the U.S.–published a well-balanced and moderate op-ed in the Boston Globe that is rumored to present the position Jalili was advocating in Istanbul. Mousavian’s recommendations for Washington were surprisingly low-cost:

the United States should credibly demonstrate that the ultimate goal is “engagement’’ and not regime change. The P5+1 should offer a package that includes three major elements: 1) recognition of Iran’s inalienable rights for enrichment; 2) removal of the sanctions; and 3) normalization of Iran’s nuclear file. 



Although a neutral observer of the U.S.-Iran conflict might well imagine that Washington would at a minimum need to recognize Iran and address its legitimate national security concerns, Mousavian evidently considers neither of these concessions essential to making progress on the initial nuclear phase of the bilateral discord. For any Washington officials who may wish to avoid war, that is good news: tough U.S. moves toward peace can be postponed for later…presumably after the election.


The degree to which Mousavian represents the views of major Tehran power-holders of course remains unclear, but he has presented a low-cost set of U.S. moves that could put U.S.-Iranian discourse on a more professional foundation and his background suggests it is logical to assume his views will resonate with at least some portions of the Iranian national security establishment.
It should, in brief, be obvious to serious national security decision-makers in Washingtonthat it is in the national security interest of the U.S.to grease the wheels for an Iranian factional realignment by presenting compromise offers that promote cooperation rather than making hardline demands that equate to an Iranian surrender.

Factionalism is of course not limited to Iran. Tel Aviv is firmly under the control of the “Greater Israel” faction that is committed both to maximizing Israeli power and permanently subjugating the Palestinian people. But even this faction is fundamentally split between those represented by risk-seeking Netanyahu who seem eager to fight to the last American to shove Iran back into client status and those, represented by recently retired and risk-averse Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who worry about provoking a disaster for Israel. Neither moderate nor liberal factions appear to play any significant role in the current Israeli power structure, but many representatives of such views speak out bluntly and regularly in the Israeli media, cautioning about not only a self-provoked disaster for Israel but the immorality of Israel’s repression of Palestinians and the harm that the Israeli garrison state is doing to Israeli democracy. These out-of-power thinkers represent a potentially revolutionary force for Israel’s future that was far more influential traditionally in Israeli politics than it is today.
The extraordinarily bitter and irresponsible factionalism in Washington separates two sides of the old superpower coin: the neo-con, zero-sum militarist faction vs. the empire-light conservative Democrats. But progressive, moderate perspectives remain among Washington officials, even if marginalized, and the argument that Washington could, by skillful diplomacy, elicit more cooperation from a factionalized Iran can be turned around: a less awkward, short-sighted, and egregiously uncooperative Tehran could also elicit a more balanced, more positive-sum attitude on Washington’s part. The more Tehran removes ambiguity from its nuclear policy, the easier it will be for those forces in Washingtontrying to prevent war to prevail. To put it differently, the more Tehranhardliners hide what they are doing in Fordo, the more Iranian representatives at nuclear talks make speeches that lack detailed substantive compromise offers, the more they empower American neo-cons and Israeli “Greater Israel” advocates.
The current situation, then, is three sets of internally competitive factions, one in each country. As illustrated in “The Current U.S.-Iranian-Israeli Political Impass,” this unfortunate reality prevents resolution of the nuclear dispute by confusing common interest in national security with domestic political infighting, separating and weakening the forces in each country that could, if interacting, find a solution. This situation greatly empowers extremists because they do not need close coordination: it only takes one actor to start a war.
The road to a positive-sum solution that could potentially end the nuclear dispute with mutual acceptance of the independence and national security of all lies in the joint realization of those in each regime favoring cooperation that cooperation needs to begin at the factional rather than national level. Once coordination between the cooperative factions of the U.S. and Iran begins, the tone of the debate changes from “how can we defeat the enemy” to “how can we solve the problem.” Redefining the terms of debate is critical to finding a real solution. Once that happens, it becomes vastly easier to persuade members of the flexible faction to joint in, thus building momentum to marginalize extremists.

Two recent indications of apparent Iranian interest in cooperation are Larijani’s offer of eventual “permanent human monitors” and Jalili’s weekend reference to Khamenei’s fatwah as an opening to “disarmament.” While perhaps indicative of an Iranian interest in compromise, these rhetorical initiatives fall far short of the type of major substantive concession that Iran, with its huge nuclear infrastructure, could afford to make. Without harming its stance of nuclear ambiguity, Tehran could, for example, open the Fordo underground refinement facility or the Arak heavy water plant to full public inspection or announce temporary termination of construction and/or operation pending the removal of sanctions. Closing one while keeping the other open would demonstrate flexibility while making the statement that Iran has multiple options in the face of continued Western intransigence while weakening protests from Netanyahu that Obama’s willingness to negotiate was only giving Iran more time. A temporary concession made on the requirement of a Western response within a specified time would empower U.S. advocates of compromise now fatally weakened by Iranian refusal to go beyond rhetorical steps that can easily and not unreasonably be dismissed by Western cynics.

In sum, the simplest picture of what is happening that everyone needs to keep in their heads is not “Iran, the U.S., and Israel,” but three sets of factions vying for influence. To prevent war and resolve the nuclear dispute, the Tehran, Washington, and Tel Aviv factions willing to define a deal centered on the concepts of mutual security and a willingness to do business together must figure out a way to coordinate and shift the debate from zero-sum barbarism to positive-sum rationality.

Opportunity for Obama to Resolve His Iran Dilemma

Tehran has just placed a great opportunity in the hands of Western nuclear negotiators by stressing that Khamenei’s anti-bomb fatwa creates an opportunity for non-proliferation. Obama will be evaluated by historians in great measure by how he responds.



In reaction to the just completed round of nuclear talks between Iran and the West, Iran’s chief negotiator Jalili has described Khamenei’s fatwa calling nuclear arms “haram” (morally forbidden) as having “created an opportunity for concrete steps toward disarmament and non-proliferation.” 


Jalili’s statement prepares the way in Tehran for nuclear compromise as the morally correct and politically correct way forward, if only the West will make some effort to present attractive offers couched respectfully. Tehran has clearly stated, in American language, that compromise is “on the table.” This is a hugely significant statement for an extremely hostile and surely somewhat nervous regime that has been struggling since its inception for independence from Western domination.


It is always easier for politicians to announce how tough they are and to portray compromise as “treachery,” as every American who has been awake for the past 15 years well knows. In a weak state under threat of attack, such tactics are all the easier. In that context, Jalili’s remark should be treated as a major signal of Tehran’s willingness to meet the West half way. Of course, it may not be such a signal, but in any case, it is a statement that powerful factions of the Iranian political leadership will have great difficulty disowning and which serves the national interests of all Western societies.


Washington should applaud this statement and find a way to respond positively with substantive offers that are presented as building on this foundation laid by Iran’s Supreme Leader. Great diplomacy seizes opportunities.