U.S.-Iranian War Even If No One Wants It?

Have the international political context and the respective domestic political contexts of Iran, the U.S., and Israel placed Iran and the U.S. on a slippery slope leading to war, whether or not anyone actually wants it?
Political science theory offers an explanation of how war may occur even when neither side desires it.
Are U.S.-Iranian relations on such a path?
One can of course debate the sincerity of either Iranian or American leaders in professing that they desire peace, but even if we take both sides at their word, does a significant danger of war still exist?
The classic arms race, in which two risk-averse but security-conscious adversaries each arm because they fear the other and in the process convince the other wrongly that they have aggressive intent is one obvious path toward undesired war. Both Tehran’s effort to enhance its nuclear capabilities while minimizing the transparency of its program and Washington’s massing of offensive naval capacity in the Persian Gulf and offensive aerial capacity in Saudi Arabia and Israel are ratcheting up feelings of insecurity on each side and empowering violence-prone politicians. Countervailing steps, be they presidential addresses in Cairo or Turkish/Brazilian efforts to find compromises, seem far from sufficient to outweigh this constant pouring of gasoline on the fire of mutual national security concerns.
An arms race creates an incendiary environment for an undesired clash. Another criterion tosses sparks on the tinder: the degree of “true believer” attitudes, i.e., an orientation toward ideology rather than practical conflict resolution that would impede willingness to search for a genuine positive-sum compromise. If to this dangerous mix is added an actual preference for violence, then war seems predictable. In the diagram, the red octant represents such a situation.
Toward War No One Wants

The Political Behavior Model illustrates a world described by three factors:

  1. Environment
  2. Ideological commitment
  3. Conflict resolution strategy.
The “challenging” extreme of the environmental axis can be viewed as representing an arms race, certainly an example of a fundamental political challenge. The three axes produce eight ideal alternative worlds or scenarios. The red octant, which one might label “war,” represents the most extreme scenario, where ideologically committed actors caught in a challenging security environment prefer to resolve disputes through violence. [For a technical review of scenario analysis, see Analyzing the Future.]
The obvious point of this theoretical construct is that it points out ways for those trying to avoid war to influence the course of events: action along any one of the three axes might suffice to alter the course of events. The question for U.S.-Iranian relations is the degree to which reality is moving toward the war scenario.
Given the continuing high level of U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf and Iran’s continuing development of nuclear capability, the military environment is if anything increasingly challenging. Israel remains under the control of factions that have historically shown themselves to be quite willing to use force and that continue vociferously to defend in public the logic of that dangerous attitude. In Iran and Israel, ideology seems strongly to influence behavior, with religious fundamentalism and zenophobia powerful in both societies. Now the U.S. mid-term elections have emboldened a faction likely to place unusual, for Americans, emphasis on ideology rather than pragmatic problem-resolution and that will be very willing to rely on force.  Along all three axes, the U.S.-Iranian relationship appears to be moving toward the war scenario.
This trend does not make war inevitable; indeed, general recognition of the rising danger might make politicians more sober. However, this analysis suggests that multiple, separate pressures are currently pushing politicians in the direction of war, a situation that will take great commitment to resist. With political careers in all three countries invested in looking tough regardless of the risk, where such commitment might be found is unclear. The easy way forward thus appears to be to continue sliding toward a war that perhaps not a single individual–Iranian, American, or Israeli– actually wants.

Talking With Adversaries

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If the Taliban are ready to talk, Washington should listen carefully, ponder deeply, consult widely, and edge cautiously toward the door. Afghans may love their country, but it is no place for Americans. Try not to step on the flowers as you leave.
With actual talks (cover the ears of the womenfolk!) apparently starting between the Taliban (agent, or apparently so it would appear to some of the originals of the American frontier, of the devil) and the representatives of globalization/capitalism/U.S.-style middle-class capitalism/imperialism, I overheard on the radio a commentary denouncing the very idea of compromise. Evidently, though the speaker did not put it in so many words, there could not possibly, in the minds of the rational, be any room whatsoever for tolerating the concept of the world’s last superpower reasoning together with the people who actually live in the land where the U.S. military is waging war.
To avoid the issue of why Washington should not talk to people who actually live on the ground it marches across, the speaker hastened to make the bald and unsubstantiated claim that bin Laden was leader of the Taliban. It is certainly true that U.S. behavior has been pushing al Qua’ida and the Taliban into each other’s arms over the last decade, but flatly to assert that a local dissident movement and a global terrorist organization constitute a single organization is, to put it very politely, dangerously misleading. Even the speaker felt forced to admit that the Taliban was factionalized, only to slide over that admission and reach a conclusion he himself had just undermined: that no hope of compromise or progress could possibly come from talking.
Note that this speaker, evidently one of those provincials now striding so brashly across the American political landscape who puts all his faith in force as the way to solve problems, evidently believed that it was precisely the tendency of the Taliban to rely on force that made talking with them so useless.  The sad thing is that in the aftermath of a decade of being taught that Americans speak the language of force, the American provincial may understand the Afghan provincials better than I wish to admit.
So not for an instant do I anticipate either an easy chat nor a U.S. victory out of negotiations with the Taliban. But the course the U.S. has been on since 9/11, a course as yet unchanged by that Champion of Change now in the White House, is one of destruction abroad and decline at home leading into a dense fog through which I can see the shimmering vision of helicopters lifting from embassy rooftops. Spare me; once in a lifetime is enough.
The Taliban is a complex and ever-adapting group of more-or-less united local factions stuck in cooperation with an international millenarian movement. Not only has significant evidence of discord between Afghans and Arabs come to view over the years, but the logic of the situation suggests that many will find it in their interest to walk through doors should the U.S. decide to open them.
Talking will admittedly accomplish little on its own. Washington will have to bite some bullets ahead of time and temper its hubris with wisdom. The issue is not what Washington wants from the Taliban but what Washington is willing to concede, and that surely will have to start with that which most firmly pushes the Taliban into al Qua’ida’s embrace: the presence of U.S. forces on Afghan soil.
Speaking only the language of force is like voluntarily tying one arm behind one’s back at the start of a wrestling match. American provincials and American imperialists who advocate such an approach are doing their country no favor. Negotiations are explorations or, if you prefer, poker matches. Tehran’s presence at Western discussions about Afghanistan just put a new card in Obama’s hand. Now the apparent new willingness of senior Taliban officials to talk puts another card in his hand. There will be no results by election day or even by Christmas. It does not matter. Let Obama play his hand with care. And that is as far as the poker analogy goes, because this is not about “winning,” it’s not about a war of religions, it’s not about establishing American Empire whatever the provincials or imperialists may think. This is about finding two paths, one that Americans can travel and one that Afghans can travel.

Theocracy vs.Democracy: The Israeli Case

Democracy is a vision of hope that has never been well implemented in any mass society. Americans should learn the lessons inherent in the missteps of other societies struggling against internal factions that attempt to use democracy in order to destroy it.
Democracy, if civil liberties are not taken to be an inherent part, is a concept with little meaning and less value. If Stalin’s USSR were “democratic” just because the law required everyone to vote, with 100% happening to vote for him, then “democracy” would be just another political rip-off. Therefore, I take the term “democracy” to incorporate civil liberties. That said, a democracy and a theocracy can only overlap if exactly 100% of the population desires a religious state; should even one person choose another path, then either the democracy will become a dictatorship or the theocracy must be abandoned.

This conflict between democracy and theocracy is increasingly becoming the central issue in Israeli politics and, with the militarists who advocate a garrison state deepening their alliance with the theocrats, threatens to become a fight to the death for the future of Israel. [For a more theoretical discussion of a distinct but closely related perspective on the struggle against authoritarianism—democracy vs. fascism—see “Mideast Peace or Fascism,” Online Journal 3/16/10.]

    One recent piece of evidence that theocratic forces are winning this battle for control of Israel is the bill just approved by a Knesset committee to give the “orthodox rabbinate” [Alana Newhouse, “The Diaspora Need Not Apply,” New York Times, 7/15/10.]
    authority over who is legally considered a Jew in Israel, a fundamental question in a theocracy because the answer defines who is a citizen.
    Going hand-in-hand with the above example of rising Israeli theocracy is the recent Israeli cabinet approval of a law that would require illegal residents aspiring to citizenship to swear allegiance to a “Jewish democratic state.” [“Israeli ‘Loyalty Oath’ Approved” MWC 7/19/10.]
    Israeli legal affairs editor for the newspaper Yediot and retired judge Boaz Okon published on June 22 his own list:
    • A school that began segregating students on ethnic lines with the support of the community;
    • A Knesset member is humiliated by her peers for joining the Gaza flotilla;
    • Apartheid on the streets of Hebron has become institutionalized;
    • Punishment of Arabs is harsher than punishment of Israelis;
    • The extraction of false confessions from minorities by police are not investigated;
    • Illegal wiretapping by the government is not investigated.
    This is only part of the judge’s list, which he summarizes as “growing evidence of the lack of the spirit of freedom and the emergence of apartheid and fascism.” [Didi Remez, “Yediot’s Legal Affairs Editor on ‘the Emergence of Apartheid and Fascism’ in Israel,” Coteret.com 6/23/2010.]
    Writing in Haaretz a few months ago, Carlo Strenger, Chair of the Clinical Graduate Program at Tel Aviv University, put it this way:
    In this time of rising anxiety Israel‘s political echelon has taken a number of steps toward undermining Israel‘s sometimes flawed but always vibrant democracy. The Knesset’s shameful passing of Yisrael Beiteinu’s so-called Nakba Law in a first reading is a dangerous precedent: Once freedom of expression starts to be curtailed, a state enters a slippery slope and nobody can know where it ends. The Israel Defense Forces’ declaring Bil’in a closed military area is an active step against political freedom and a way to undercut decisions taken by Israel‘s Supreme Court. [Muzzling Israel’s Left Only Harms Its Democracy, Haaretz 4/2/10.]
    One can easily imagine where this is headed: in the future, lifelong Jewish Israeli citizens who dare to oppose government policies will find a rabbinate court stripping them of their “Jewishness” and the government stripping them of their citizenship and themselves being fined the cost of a one-way flight to somewhere else.
    When the privilege of enjoying democratic rights is reserved for a subset of the population, say, whites, or males, or the rich, then the society is already set on a slippery slope down to authoritarianism. After all, if “the poor” or those lacking blue eyes can rightfully be excluded, then why not you…or, indeed, everyone except “the leader?” Israel is now clinging to this slippery slope and losing its grip.
    All is of course not lost. The U.S., with its 18th century democracy for rich white men, managed to climb some ways up this slope but at the cost of the Civil War, which cracked open the door not just for blacks but for Indians and white women as well. So the course can be reversed, but slipping down the slope is far easier than crawling back up.
    Those Israelis so fond of talking about existential threats should think about the contradiction between democracy and theocracy before it becomes the real existential threat facing Israel. But that is the business of Israelis. For Americans, the issue is different: having been taught a lesson about the dangers of external violent fundamentalism, it is now time for Americans to learn about the dangers of internal fundamentalists who pursue their anti-democratic goals by democratic means.
    When democracy is reduced to democratic processes without a secure foundation in popular responsibility to defend civil liberties, then democracy becomes a dangerous tool in the hands of extremists subtle enough to conceal their penchant for force. The first lesson for Americans is that this danger exists in the U.S. as well, although for Americans, it may be easier to perceive it by looking overseas. In both Israel and Iran today, the contending forces are particularly clear, but Israel is the country Americans should be watching the most closely, both because it is still a relatively open society and because many Americans pursuing a special agenda are pleased to insist loudly that Israelis “share American values.” If Israel is to be taken as a model for or a reflection of American values, then we owe it to ourselves to make sure we know exactly what values Israelis today believe in.
    The second lesson is that Americans should support those who share its values, doing business cautiously with the rest, but with the clear caveat in mind that this distinction cannot be made by dividing the countries of t world into “good” countries and “bad” countries. After all, if a whole country were to be given a single classification, presumably based on the behavior of its government, then where would we classify the U.S. itself, with its recent history of unprovoked aggression and attacks on civilians? Societies can modify their beliefs very quickly, and different parts of society, as has become crystal clear to both liberals and conservatives in the U.S. over the past decade, can represent fundamentally distinct perspectives. Watching how Israelis or Americans or…Iranians behave, the distinction between those groups in each society that are worthy allies and those that are not becomes clear. It is, to cite just one example, not in the interests of the American people to support political factions that advocate or practice the violent suppression of those exercising civil rights, unless, of course, you really believe it to be in your interest to have a minimally educated but power-hungry politician deciding what you should think. In a word, it is no more in the interests of Americans to be in an alliance with a theocratic Israel than it is to be in an alliance with a theocratic Iran;  conversely, it is very much in the interest of Americans to support those circles in both the Israeli and Iranian societies that share the values that Americans, at their finest, have been struggling to realize for the last two centuries.

    The initial version of this article, entitled “Israeli Theocracy,” was published by Media With Conscience on 7/20/10.

    Le Paradigme Modérés-Militants

    The White House remains, nine years after 9/11, mired in the false paradigm that the Mideast is divided neatly into two opposing camps – “good” moderates vs. “bad” militants, which is exactly why Washington should start listening to the real moderates such as Erdogan and Lula.

    Robert Malley and Peter Harling from International Crisis Group present, in an article in Le Monde on 5/24/10, a pointed summary of the Mideast trap left by Bush for Obama:

    Tout d’abord, le legs de l’administration Bush est d’avoir réveillé les trois épicentres de tensions mentionnés plus haut, provoquant des changements tectoniques en invitant à une renégociation des rapports de force à un niveau interétatique (opposant notamment Israël, l’Iran, l’Arabie saoudite, la Syrie, l’Egypte et la Turquie) et infraétatique (au Liban, sur la scène palestinienne et en Irak).
    Cette multiplication des zones de tension s’est produite conjointement avec un affaiblissement de la crédibilité et de l’influence américaines, et ce à double titre. D’une part, la capacité militaire des Etats-Unis a révélé ses profondes limites – directement, à travers ses déboires irakiens et, indirectement, par le biais des échecs israéliens au Liban et à Gaza.
    D’autre part, la politique des Etats-Unis s’est placée systématiquement sur le plan des valeurs, déployant sans relâche un argumentaire moraliste, à un moment où l’image du pays constituait justement son plus grand point faible. Impérialisme en Irak, attitude réductrice face à l’islamisme, rejet du résultat des élections palestiniennes, aveuglement face aux agissements israéliens, violations des droits de l’homme : difficile d’imaginer administration plus repoussante pour une opinion publique arabe qu’elle entendait pourtant galvaniser.
    Le manichéisme de Washington, sommant les acteurs locaux de choisir résolument leur camp, a eu pour autre conséquence d’enfermer ses alliés dans une relation aussi exclusive qu’inconfortable, tout en renforçant l’axe opposé. L’iniquité des Etats-Unis dans les perceptions populaires donnait force aux pôles de “résistance”, notamment l’Iran, la Syrie, le Hezbollah et le Hamas. Une logique de confrontation systématique venait ressouder les relations souvent ambivalentes que ces acteurs entretiennent entre eux.
    Enfin, dans chacune des trois arènes régionales, la politique de Washington leva, très concrètement, les obstacles qui se posaient à la montée en puissance de ses ennemis. Ainsi, les Etats-Unis permirent celle de l’Iran en Irak, du Hezbollah au Liban et du Hamas en Palestine.
    En somme, l’administration Bush employait un paradigme hérité de la guerre froide, quand la diplomatie s’ancrait dans des relations bilatérales relativement stables, et que Washington pouvait s’appuyer sur ses alliés pour promouvoir des intérêts clairement définis.
    La guerre globale contre le terrorisme n’était, à vrai dire, qu’une tentative grossière de restituer un ordre binaire, une idéologie pouvant subsumer la diversité des adversaires et les contradictions inhérentes à son propre camp. Elle était d’emblée vouée à l’échec parce qu’elle n’était que le rejeton un peu difforme d’une ère dépassée. Ce manichéisme s’est sapé de lui-même, qui plus est, en contribuant au déclin de la puissance américaine, à l’embarras du camp des modérés, et à la prolifération des conflits.

    In this false image from fevered neo-con minds, “moderate” and “militant” are defined not on the basis of behavior by in terms of the degree of subservience to Washington. All who salute are moderate regardless of how violent they may be; all who insist on the right to independent policies are “militant,” regardless of how dedicated they may be to reform or democracy or peace. With religious fundamentalists, expansionists, those who “understand only the language of force,” those who overthrow democratic governments, those with vicious secret police forces to suppress domestic civil liberties, and those who practice collective punishment all jumbled together under the label of moderates who “share our values,” how is Obama or anyone else to make sense of U.S. policy toward the Mideast?
    Erdogan and Lulu see this trap clearly; the White House–still mired in le paradigme modérés-militants— evidently still does not.

    Does Political Islam Have a Center?

    Is there a centrist position in political Islam, and could the West benefit from cultivating, rather than suppressing, it?

    The post-9/11 American prejudice is that Muslim societies have only two groups: the quiescent, obedient ones and the terrorists. So, I’d like to pose a few questions that any specialist would no doubt find laughably simplistic. From the perspective of Muslim studies, they are simplistic; from the perspective of the average American, I’m afraid they are not. So specialists need to take them seriously and provide answers:

    Meaning of “Centrist” or “Middle of the Road:”

    Note that I said “centrist,” not “moderate.” I would take “centrist” to indicate non-violent when feasible, advocating rule through law and discussion but not necessarily behaving in a manner a citizen of a rich, comfortable industrial state might call “moderate” because in a highly corrupt and polarized traditional dictatorship (apply these loaded terms where they fit), “moderation” may not be what is needed to reach the center. Just to make the point for American readers, “moderation” would not have freed the slaves or eliminated segregation; “moderation” would not have gotten women the vote; “moderation” would not have earned workers the right to independent unions. If society is far to the right (oh, think the behavior of the police during anti-globalization protests in Seattle or during the Republican convention in New York or the attitude of government toward the poor of New Orleans fleeing Katrina), then “centrist” does not somehow magically transform into “just a little less far to the right;” rather, “centrist” still must contain some semblance of aiming at the “center,” i.e. half way between repressive elitism and revolutionary destruction. A “centrist” Obama Administration, for example, might have broken up Goldman Sachs and jailed all executives convicted of interfering with government regulators; few would have termed that “moderate,” but it would have been right in the center between the right wing demand for unregulated Wall Street greed and the public ownership concept of modern socialism—which would call for the replacement of Goldman by a governmental institution to manage trading for the public welfare.

    Being Centrist in Muslim Society.

    Returning to Muslim societies, and without forgetting the questions posed above, how should a centrist political Islamic activist behave? The answer for such a person in Turkey may be easy…well, at least if that person is ethnically a Turk. But what if that citizen is a Kurd and wants to participate in a peaceful, democratic movement for regional autonomy? What about a member of Iran’s green movement peacefully marching while being beaten by the Basij? What about a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood being thrown in jail for aspiring to vote or, indeed, an elected Muslim Brotherhood member of parliament for aspiring to serve? What about a poor Shi’ite resident of South Lebanon watching Israeli jet bombers roar over his house at low altitudes in fake attack runs to remind him of the terror of the summer 2006 war? What about a farmer in Gaza being shot at for walking in his fields along the Israeli border?

    Americans, not least those over-confident folks in Washington driving their aircraft carriers here and there, would benefit from considering these questions. I will try to as well, in coming posts. Chime in!


    In 2008, Khalil al-Anani wrote an intriguing article still well worth reading called, not coincidentally, “The Path of Centrist Political Islam” January 29, 2008 on the Common Ground News website.

    The West & Political Islam

    Americans need to take the blinders off and look squarely at the political world we are creating before we lock ourselves into a future that we may find extremely distasteful. Fortunately, we have a surprisingly wide array of choices.

    The neo-con mythology about political Islam depicts a homogeneous mass of crazy, violence-prone, evil aggressors motivated by religion and willing to use any method to achieve their goals. In truth, political Islam is a highly differentiated, disunified social universe motivated by as wide a range of goals as Americans and overwhelmingly non-violent.

    There are several curious aspects of this neo-con mythology. Not the least interesting is the degree to which the neo-con portrayal of Islam reflects the reality about the neo-cons themselves. The utility of the neo-con myth for various neo-con projects—above all, the transformation of the U.S. into a global empire in control of the world’s oil and the transformation of Israel into a regional mini-empire—also merits reflection. But perhaps the most curious—and most tragic–aspect of the neo-con myth about political Islam is the degree to which it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Regardless of the true condition of the Islamic political world, to the degree that the world’s only remaining superpower portrays it as a monolithic, frightening, evil, and implacably hostile entity and treats it accordingly, then political Islam will evolve into that which it is accused of being. The greater the tendency of Washington to use force to get what it wants from global political Islam, the greater will be the tendency of Muslims to respond with force. The greater the tendency of Washington to view all activist, independent-minded Muslims as enemies, the greater will be the tendency of this highly factionalized array of political actors to unite against the common enemy. The greater the degree to which Washington views Muslim activists as evil, the greater will be the tendency of Muslim activists to conclude that they have no hope of finding an acceptable compromise with Washington.

    The Muslim-Western contest has existed for far too long for a “chicken vs. egg” debate to have any value. Whether one dates it from the Arab attack on Spain, from the Crusades, from the neo-colonial era of imperialism, or from 9/11, the Muslim-Western contest waxes and wanes as each succeeding generation learns its own lessons. If the future of the world and the security of ourselves and our countries constitute our areas of primary concern, what matters is not so much the presumed nature of any specific person or group as the attitudes of broad social sectors. A man may decide to change the world but find that being a political leader is more like being a train driver, who can change the speed but must stick to the track, than being an explorer who can wander wherever he wishes.

    The constant flow of the new generation into society offers endless opportunities for changing the course of events. A new Western generation may grow up imagining that war of civilizations is normal. A new Muslim generation may grow up without the frustrations that persuaded their mothers and fathers to view terrorist gangs as their only hope for justice. Support for and rates of recruitment into this or that political movement consequently change, leaving political leaders wondering why they can no longer accomplish what they were accustomed to accomplishing in the past. Physics may concern immutable laws of nature; politics concerns the possible.

    In a political world of ever-evolving possibilities, yesterday’s assumptions will be today’s blinders. The neo-con myth about political Islam, born from a combination of rage over 9/11 and short-sighted desire to exploit 9/11 to fulfill private agendas, has, a decade later, become a set of blinders Americans can no longer afford to wear. We need to take the blinders off and look squarely at the political world we are creating before we lock ourselves into a future that we may find extremely distasteful.

    Whatever your political views, you owe it to yourself to consider two questions:

    1. What sort of world are we creating?
    2. What can we do about it?

    The Islamic world was on a role from the 7th to the 15th centuries, whether viewed militarily, culturally, politically, scientifically, or morally. Illustrating only the last point, a comparison of religious freedom in 13th century Muslim Spain with 13th century France or England or Germany would show Muslims centuries ahead of their Western neighbors. But since the 15th century, roles have reversed. That long twilight of Muslim activism, that ceding of Muslim initiative now seems to be reversing.

    Today, the Muslim world is in ferment. Popular interest in politics is intense, even as Westerners are becoming dangerously jaded about their governments.

    The West, with its military superiority, has the option of resisting tooth and nail, risking everything to retain its top-dog status. The West also has the option of looking for a mutually beneficial and historically innovating restructuring of our political world that would leave the West secure while accommodating Muslim aspirations. We in the West today face few challenges more urgent than the challenge of figuring out which goal is best and how to bring it to fruition.


    Afghan Details

    Yemeni Details

    Iranian Details

    Israeli-Palestinian Details


    A look at the details of the political landscape in various Muslim societies and the nature of U.S. behavior will reveal that the U.S. faces a surprisingly rich array of opportunities.

    Step Gently Toward Peace With Iran

    Iran does not want what one might call a regional apartheid political system in which Israel can have nuclear weapons while Iran cannot; Israel can attack neighbors at will while Iran cannot even provide military assistance to its allies; and Iran continues to be criticized for its domestic political system because it is out of step with the U.S.-centric international political system. Iran wants respectful treatment, recognition of its right to play a leading role in the Mideast even as it chooses its own path, and a fundamental reconsideration of both Iran’s and America’s proper regional role.

    If Kerry visits Tehran either holding a cake in his hand or a knife behind his back, the mission will fail.

    Obama tried upon election to make Washington’s words about the Muslim world more civilized, but when it came to changing U.S. behavior he has had little impact. Americans need to demand a rational foreign policy that considers the perspectives of others and rejects war as the answer. To achieve those goals, talking to adversaries is essential. Nevertheless, a Kerry visit to Iran would be very dangerous at this moment.

    It is tempting to compare a Kerry visit to Iran with Nixon’s path-breaking trip to China, but the conditions are very different. Nixon’s trip was a visit both sides had decided was necessary to face down a third-party threat. The problem in US-Iranian relations is a disagreement over bilateral issues. No consensus exists in Iran that there is a need to deal with a U.S. justifiably seen as duplicitous. And even after Gaza and Somalia and Lebanon and Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iraq, Americans still have not learned that war is not the answer. Therefore, even though diplomacy is desperately needed to avoid a mutual disaster, now is probably not the moment for grandstanding.

    Tehran has every reason to be suspicious. Washington has been sending very clear signals for years that any deal with Iran will come only on U.S. terms, and U.S. terms are that Iran accept the U.S. domination of the global political order plus a free pass for Israel regionally. Most seriously, this means that nuclear rules that are to apply to Iran will not apply to Israel. If Kerry goes just to talk Tehran into accepting discriminatory nuclear restrictions that do not apply to Israel, his trip will only make matters worse.

    What offer could Kerry take to Iran that would persuade Tehran that the U.S. was serious about addressing its concerns?

    Kerry could probably offer total U.S. support for Iranian uranium refinement up to 20% (medical grade), an offer to negotiate a joint policy toward Afghanistan and Iraq, complete termination of economic sanctions, aid to modernize its petroleum industry (including gasoline refinement), and acceptance of Iran’s support for Hezbollah and still see Tehran dismiss him out of hand.

    Why? Would such a list of concessions not be generous? Well, yes, if one sees the U.S. as the father of world nations, that list would be a nice handful of presents to the Iranian child. But Iran does not see itself as a child begging for toys. Iran sees itself as an emerging regional leader meriting a respectful hearing and having the right, without asking for permission, to find its own path. The U.S. needs to present the case for why Iran should choose a path that excludes the militarization of nuclear technology, not a case based on threats but a case that would persuade a true Iranian nationalist that voluntarily renouncing nuclear weaponization is the most beneficial path for Iran.

    All those seemingly significant U.S. concessions would still not address Iran’s fundamental complaint that the U.S. wants Iran to play by discriminatory rules that would leave Iran a second-class citizen. The bottom line is that Iran does not want what one might call a regional apartheid political system in which Israel can have nuclear weapons while Iran cannot; Israel can attack neighbors at will while Iran cannot even provide military assistance to its allies; and Iran continues to be criticized for its domestic political system because it is out of step with the U.S.-centric international political system.

    Were Kerry to put on the table an offer to accept the long-term principle of a single regional nuclear standard, Tehran might well take notice. Such a revolutionary move would also go far toward justifying Obama’s Nobel Prize.

    But will Obama dare to go this far? And could he back up such an offer, given the self-destructive nature of U.S. domestic politics?

    Even if Obama dares to take a historic step and can pull it off in terms of domestic politics, history cautions us that the grand play that puts all eggs in one basket is inadvisable. Iranians will not have forgotten the absurd bungling of Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal, and Obama’s impatient mishandling in recent weeks of the effort to cut a deal with Iran to trade uranium suggests that Washington still has little idea how to work with Iran.

    The idea of a Kerry trip is great; the timing is probably not yet right. The alternative idea of parliamentary talks, which would be lower-level and less sensitive but still get to or possibly even involve key security official Ali Larijani makes more sense at the moment.

    The urgency is great, as indicated by the Manichean blindness of Alan Kuperman’s recent call for war in the New York Times that was so ably refuted by Marc Lynch. The U.S. war party is far from dead. The urgency is also great because political conditions in Iran are getting steadily worse, empowering the most extremist elements. Extremists who see the world as black or white and worship the use of force have great power on both sides. But that does not mean, indeed perhaps that is precisely why, we should step gently down the road toward resolution of the Iranian-U.S. nuclear dispute. Now is the time for broad, quiet technical talks to lay out mutually beneficial solutions not just to the nuclear dispute but to the basic contradictions in our respective concepts of acceptable Iranian and America roles in the Mideast.

    Education: Another Option for Helping Afghanistan

    Here’s another option Obama overlooked on Afghanistan: funding a national educational system.

    The thesis of “Hammering Islamic Radicals” was that Obama’s troop surge into Afghanistan solidifies U.S. relapse into the neo-con foreign policy based on force, effectively institutionalizing an aberrant, extremist position that ignores a broad range of policy options. While a few of these options were noted, the article’s thesis stands on weak ground unless it can be demonstrated that, in fact, the policy options Obama is ignoring truly do constitute a “broad range” of serious options.

    Making that case will require significant thought and research. Any reader with suggestions is cordially invited to offer them. Here, I simply wish to add one option that was suggested by a reporter interviewed on Dalgit Daliwan’s TV news program on December 4:

    Fund a national educational system for all the Afghan students currently studying in madrassas so as to expose them to a modern education rather than an education that will arguably prepare them to be Taliban recruits.

    I do not know how radical the curriculum of Afghan madrassas may be. One could also question the degree to which, given the deplorable condition of the Afghan government at all levels, how radical education should be in order to prepare young Afghans to build the kind of government they need. But “funding an Afghan educational system” should not be taken to mean imposing regime-controlled curriculum; indeed, the experience of an innovative new compromise madrassa in, of all places, violent Helmand Province, suggests that education might actually be a topic on which radicals and the regime can hold a useful dialogue.

    But when the total cost of such an educational system for a year would only be equivalent to the cost of some 20 U.S. soldiers, according to the interviewee (i.e., $20 million)—cookie crumbs off the $30B table of military expenses for Obama’s new military surge, this is obviously an option worth considering. In fact, even under the violence-addicted Bush-Cheney Administration, the U.S. invested money in the Afghan educational system, one small Republican idea that would have been worth focusing on.


    Other options include –

    1. Campaign to eradicate heroin labs

    2. Stress desire for Muslim rather than Western “boots on the ground”;

    3. Offer the police a living wage.


    Does anyone have more information about the current Afghan educational system?

    Can anyone offer additional options that Obama might have considered to complement or substitute for his overwhelming focus on military force?

    Two Emerging Powers Spoiling for a Showdown

    The following is not a prediction. I would be the last to make linear extrapolations about the Mideast. It’s just a totally unscientific scenario of the near future that may be developing in the Mideast, making the huge assumption that no surprises occur. A ridiculous assumption for sure, but it is still worth thinking about current trends…

    At the moment, Netanyahu appears to be tying Obama in knots, Iran appears to be taking over Iraq, and a crusading military dictatorship appears to be winning total control in Iran. One can easily make arguments about how Obama is really very patient and will not allow Israeli extremists to manipulate him; how Iraqi Shi’ites are patriotic opponents of Iranian control; how a broad moderate coalition is gaining power inside Iran (indeed, I just made the latter argument myself).

    That said, appearances at the moment suggest that in five years, Israeli hardliners will have crushed the Palestinian people completely and solidified control of what will be a messianic, racist, apartheid, fundamentalist, and aggressively militant Greater Israel. Similarly, an alliance of superpatriotic military and fundamentalist clerics will have solidified control of Iran.

    Israel will have intimidated all its neighbors except possibly a very cautious Hezbollah. Iran will have organized Iraq into a combination cordon sanitaire plus roadway for Iran into the Mideast. There will be no more Iranian arms ships to Palestine. If any Palestinians still exist to accept aid, Iran will be able to drive truck convoys through Iraq and Syria right up to the border of Jordan, assuming it still exists as an independent state.

    The U.S. will be thoroughly cowed by the Israeli lobby and the unrestrained violence of crusading Israeli settlers completing ethnic cleansing with no apologies. Vis-a-vis Iran, the U.S. will not know which way to turn because it will be so mired down in Central Asia that it will be too dependent on Iran to fight it. And Iran will not be alone. Iran will have a nice little gas cartel sinecure running with Russia and expanding influence in Pakistan, which will be dependent on its new gas pipeline from Iran.

    Bottom line: current trends suggest the ominous possibility that in five years both Iran and Israel may be emerging regional powers controlled by highly confident, militant religious movements run by extremist politicians believing that they talk to God and that God is telling them that war is the road to victory.