Iran Policy: Making the Same Mistake Over and Over

Insisting on digging deeper the hole you are standing in constitutes evidence of psychological decline. U.S. policy toward Iran is an example so obvious that even hardline Israeli intelligence officials are getting nervous.

The possibility of American decline has traditionally been seen by Americans as virtually impossible by definition, at least in recent decades. Americans tend not to remember anything much further back than that, but I would guess that those who survived the Great Depression might occasionally have experienced some doubt about the “inevitability” of progress in America. Over the last decade, the disastrous mismanagement of the so-called “war on terror” and the U.S. financial system and the environment (remember the poisoned Gulf of Mexico??) have awakened more than a few of the “other 99%” to the realization that since we the people built the U.S., we the people can logically also wreck it: whether you find this good news or bad news, the fact is that the U.S. did not evolve through some inevitable natural phenomenon; we created it through a lot of hard work and more than a little moderate, open-minding thinking of the type that today seems in scarce supply. Therefore, we the people (and perhaps occasionally even a politician or two) ought to be evaluating our society every waking minute for signs of cracks in the facade of everlasting progress. You can’t fix it if you don’t know it’s broke.

In a previous introductory effort to examine the possibility of American decline, I identified several signs of wear, of which one was Washington’s “declining ability to design the appropriate tools for international conflict resolution.” Assertions of this type are easy to justify with selected evidence but extremely difficult to measure accurately. Face validity for the assertion may be provided by the failure to deal effectively with the long, slow build-up of al Qua’ida, the war on terror, the endless cancer of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that American bias has so needlessly intensified, and the clueless 30-year-long failure by Washington to devise an effective policy toward Iran. Compared to the defeat of Hitler (even if primary credit for that goes to the USSR), the democratization of Germany and Japan, and the peaceful resolution of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy over the last 15 years or so does indeed appear second-rate. Nevertheless, the assertion that American foreign policy is declining in effectiveness and constitutes evidence of a broader decline deserves constant reevaluation until conclusively demonstrated to be false.

In that context, Washington’s continuing insistence on pursuing a hard-line policy of threats, discrimination, and marginalization toward Iran that is demonstrably not working constitutes one of the most significant pieces of evidence. The gap between stated goals and the negative-sum methods Washington insists on employing to achieve those goals has now become so clear that even the toughest of the Israeli national security elite, most prominently recently retired Mossad chief Meir Dagan, are beginning to lay their reputations on the line to raise the red flag of warning against emotion-driven politicians who are treading too far down the slippery slope to disaster.

The point here is not that Dagan has suddenly become soft or liberal, but that he seems to feel that he must, to protect his country, make the public distinction between zero-sum policies (i.e., policies that either help Israel or Iran) and negative-sum policies (i.e., policies that harm both sides). Dagan, in the face of a torrent of insults from Israeli war-party politicians, has recently reiterated his warning that an Israeli attack on Iran would risk disaster for Israel. American politicians, like many in Israel, have great difficulty today distinguishing between steps that protect national security and steps that undermine it even though they demonstrate “toughness.” The option of offering Iran a compromise exists but does not even appear to occur to Dagan, who–as the apparent leader in recent years of  undeclared Israeli war on Iran (via terrorism)–has given no evidence of willingness to compromise with Iran but is staking his political future on avoiding self-defeating risk-taking. In other words, like other conservatives, he rejects a positive-sum outcome, but like responsible leaders of all hues also rejects irresponsible policies that are likely to turn out to be negative-sum (an outcome that can only be detected by those who make the effort to think about the long term). 

To determine whether the U.S. is governing effectively or entering a period of decline, one of the key pieces of evidence will be the quality of its policy toward Iran.


Leaders: Experimenting on Us?

When leaders appear to be promoting a short-sighted, evil, or counter-productive policy, are they in fact simply conducting an experiment, testing an hypothesis (perhaps with you as the test material) they wish to apply to a completely different issue?
It is tempting, for those of little faith, to jump to judgment on our leaders, assuming that they share our values. Perhaps we believe in peace and jump to the conclusion that government policies that so obviously provoke war demonstrate the “stupidity” of leaders. It is undeniably easy to name leaders who give every indication of stupidity, but governments are not run by a single individual; policy is almost always the result of the input of at least half a dozen, and perhaps of many dozen, individuals. Becoming a leader is not easy; a particular one may conceivably be a hapless front-man for some shadowy elite group, but if that is the case, then still policy is flowing from a group (perhaps a financial elite or a military-industrial complex or a group of rich ranchers or the army’s leading generals or a frustrated faction out to change the world). The policy-making group may be composed of folks all of whom harbor some delusion but all are unlikely to be stupid. After all, they had the smarts to get power! More than that, leadership requires or at least is associated with inventiveness. Leaders tend to be activists with all sorts of ideas. These ideas may certainly be short-sighted, inimical to the interests of the country, or even counterproductive for the individual policy-makers themselves. But if you have set yourself the task of figuring out what is going on, jumping to the conclusion that these policy-makers are simply “stupid” is probably the wrong place to start.
Neatly trim your hairy initial thoughts with Occam’s razor. That may not lead to truth, but it will give a logical foundation on which to erect your mental framework. Assume that policy flows from a group with intelligence. If that policy appears short-sighted or counterproductive, consider that the policy-making group may have different goals than you. National security may, for example, be not at all in the interest of a jet-setting group of rich men on the make, nor is national security necessarily in the interest of an international reform movement or a fundamentalist group intent on overthrowing the international political system.
But to observe that leaders are probably not, in comparison with the average person, “stupid,” is certainly not to claim that they are, in comparison with thoughtful and well educated students of human behavior, “intelligent.” Perhaps the assumption that they are inventive is the best starting point. Leaders are people who go to considerable effort to acquire power and, along the way if not from the start, can generally be assumed to have wild imaginations about what they would do with that power. Do they have vision? Not necessarily. But the probably do enjoy experimenting…more than you might have imagined.
Before exploring the question of whether or not leaders play with their power like a mad scientist building Frankenstein just to see what Frankenstein’s first words might be rather than because of any particular objective that he might want Frankenstein to achieve, a couple comments on the marvelous ability of leaders to drop rocks on their own feet may be in order. The question of whether a given policy is an example of “dropping rocks on one’s own feet” or in fact for some ulterior motive known only to the leader is central to understanding human politics. Here, an example will suffice.
In a concise little study of U.S.-Latin American relations, Amira Armenta focuses on the counter-productive nature of U.S. policy, which presumably has been designed to achieve control over Latin regimes for the benefit of, say, U.S. corporations or some concept of U.S. national security, but which repeatedly provokes utterly unnecessary waves of anti-Americanism that end up costing the U.S. money and decision-maker time that could better have been applied to real global challenges.

La misma myopia que ha caracterizado la politica de seguridad de EEUU para el continente se puede percibir tambien en su politica economica. Cuando Washington predica su modelo de mercados abiertos y de libre comercio como receta magica para la prosperidad ecomomica, en realidead esta impulsando la penetracion de EEUU en los mercados latinoamericanos mientras mantiene al mismo tiempo una linea protectora y de subsidios para supropia industria agricola. Los impactos de esta judaga no tardan en revelarse: pobreza que genera malestar social, incremento de la delincuencia, migracion. Despues se preguntan, de donde surgen el chavismo, el indigenismo, el zapatismo y todos esto movimientos socials y politicos que acusan de populistas, radicals, izquierdistas, etc. [En el patio de atras 58.]

Heavy-handed economic exploitation provokes anti-American rebellion. Support for the rapidly spreading cancer of soy monoculture in Paraguay at the expense of the livelihood of the people may indeed be provoking yet another anti-American movement at the present moment. One may fairly ask if an elite can ever learn.
Policies can surely be counter-productive, but that judgment is derived from a long-term perspective. Over the long term, someone else will be in office. It is worth considering the evidence that leaders frequently are folks really just don’t think about the long term; rather, they like to tinker…with our fates.
One example is Gaza, which for years has been treated by leaders on all sides as a laboratory to experiment with hypotheses about running a global war against activist Islam or about making oneself a great Muslim champion.
Another example [“Men as Test Mice” on Historical and Literary Lessons] is suggested by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag archipelago, wherein he describes the development of the Stalinist policy of imprisoning everyone with a mind of his own:
Юридической же формы, как  и у раскулачивания,  у не?
не было. Уголовный кодекс был сам по себе, а ссылка сотен тысяч человек --
сама по себе. Это было личное распоряжение монарха. Кроме того, это был его
первый национальный эксперимент подобного рода, это было ему интересно

…the German exile had no juridical basis. The Criminal Code [which dealt with all manner of individual infraction: WM] in itself was one thing, and the exile of hundreds of thousands of people was something else entirely. It was the personal edict of a monarch. In addition, this was his first experiment of the sort with an entire nationality, and he found it interesting from a theoretical point of view.
The thesis of Greg Grandin that Latin America “has long served as a workshop of empire, the place where the United States elaborated ,tactics of extraterritorial administration and acquired its conception of itself as an empire like no other before it” [Empire’s Workshop (N.Y.: Holt Paperbacks, 2006, 2)] is yet another suggestive perspective, and is filled with examples of lessons learned in Latin America that were later applied in the Mideast, though it is of course difficult to find evidence to demonstrate the degree to which practitioners in Latin America may have had non-Latin countries in mind at that time as ultimate targets.
Perhaps seemingly vicious, short-sighted, or self-defeating policies really are not about the particular subject population. Perhaps the policy-maker’s perspective is no more about “victory” than is a scientist’s daily experiment. Sure, the scientist will be happy to get the desired outcome, but failure to concoct a particular chemical in a test tube is also educational. Indeed, it is the only road to ultimate discovery. Did Stalin really care about a few tens of thousands of German residents or were the vast millions of subject Central Asian Muslims in his mind? Did Washington really see tiny Nicaragua as a threat or were the contras really a test of a broader Cold War-rollback hypothesis?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            
To what degree can vicious, short-sighted, or self-defeating policies most accurately instead be understood as experiments to validate hypotheses designed for application elsewhere?

Empire: The Neo-Con/Likudnik State of Mind

To learn, read what you disagree with! If you care about world peace and oppose empire, read the revealing expose of neo-con attitudes toward Iran presented by political science professor and former Bush/Cheney consultant Peter Feaver.
Listening carefully to an intelligent but committed conservative is marvelously revealing, but put the emphasis on “carefully.” The recent defense [Palestine Note 5/12/10] of U.S. policy toward Iran by Duke political scientist and former advisor to the Bush/Cheney Administration on strategic planning Peter Feaver exemplifies what can be learned by careful consideration of an intellectual’s defense of empire.
Feaver characterizes the U.S.-Iranian dispute “for over thirty years” as “primarily about behavior,” a dispute that would end “if the regime were to change its behavior.” Read every word with care. This is a refreshingly honest admission from an imperial defender that the U.S. would happily deal with an Iran that would submit. Feaver’s summary effectively dispels any inclination to take seriously his earlier remark in the same paragraph that the dispute concerns “its support for international terrorism, its pursuit of WMD, and its hostility towards Israel.” Only the last—hostility toward Israel—comes close to revealing the truth. Just for the most obvious example, the U.S. works closely every day with Israel, India, and Pakistan, all of which vigorously and successfully pursue WMD.
Feaver also reveals in this passage, if only by implication, the clear order of events that Washington requires: first, Iranian change in behavior; second, U.S. acceptance of “more fruitful and cordial relations.” Again, note this carefully: Feaver is clearly not suggesting negotiations. A positive-sum outcome of mutual benefit is not at all what he is referring to; rather, Feaver is indicating about as honestly as any defender of empire is likely to do that the process of obtaining “cordial” U.S. treatment is submission to the rules of the international political system written in Washington.
These rules are significant. It is worth being clear about what the rules require and what they do not.
Rule 1 is acceptance of American international leadership. No campaigns for new leadership, no elections, no competing or reformist visions will be tolerated.
Rule 2 is acceptance of Israeli military dominance over the Mideast. Only Israel, among Mideast states, is to be allowed nuclear weapons; other countries can have arms to the degree permitted by Israel. Israel is to be allowed overflight rights across international borders to enforce the limitations on arms that it sets. Military support for Palestinian liberation or the defense of Lebanon is not only forbidden but will be terms “terrorism.” Only Israel is to be allowed to establish colonies or expand its territory (to be fair, there is now some evidence that this rule is under review in Washington).
Rule 3 is broad acceptance of the legitimacy of the current international political system. Reformers must step very, very lightly, and dissidents—even those only presenting theoretical visions, much less those who take action—are treated with exactly the same contempt with which Moscow treated its own dissidents under the bad old Soviet Union. Where the Soviet Union threw dissident individuals into insane asylums, Washington pillories dissident regimes as “crazy.” Perhaps it was “crazy” for a Solzhenitzen or a Sakharov to demand that the USSR reform; perhaps it is also “crazy” for an Iran, a Hamas, a Turkey, a Brazil, or a Cairo (!) to demand that the international political system be reformed.
Note that no rule about possession of WMD exists. That is decided on a case-by-case basis, not on the basis of defense needs but on the basis of…well, Feaver already said it: “behavior.”
The behavioral change Washington demands of Tehran is very simply its acceptance of these rules. There is a word for this, and that word is “surrender.”
Feaver’s revelations continue. Concerning the U.S. double-standard on Mideast nuclear arms, he states frankly: “The United States views the Iranian pursuit of a nuclear weapon to be substantially more destabilizing than the Israeli nuclear posture:” destabilizing to the current power structure in the Mideast, that is. One could of course take issue with the assumption that Israel can be trusted not to knock down the American house of cards by provoking regional war, but Feaver is undoubtedly correct that this is in fact the U.S. elite assumption. Few are the decision makers in Washington with the foresight and independence of mind to consider the danger to American security in an era of long-term recession and a worsening war against global activist Islam that is posed by the threat of an Israeli nuclear strike.
Unfortunately, Feaver’s efforts to put Likudnik propaganda to the side and present an intellectual defense of U.S. policy collapses once he starts trying to justify Israeli nuclear arms. He notes correctly the anti-Israeli challenge posed by “well-armed groups” without making any attempt to explain how nuclear arms will prevent rockets from Gaza or Palestinian efforts to protect their homes and olive groves from Israeli colonization. Does he anticipate small Israeli nuclear strikes on Hamas headquarters in Gaza or to clear Palestinian homes from East Jerusalem? Sliding over the indefensible implications of his reference to nuclear arms as protection from “well-armed groups,” he jumps to the standard neo-con propaganda charge that Ahmadinejad has pledged “to wipe Israel from the face of the map.” As often as Persian readers demonstrate that this charge was created by mistranslation, neo-con & Likudnik propagandists repeat the charge.
Returning the focus of his remarks to Iran, Feaver again becomes interesting. “The United States believes it needs tough sanctions as leverage on the Iranian regime; without such leverage, why would Iran negotiate in good faith. Iran believes that it should negotiate only when there are no such sanctions or leverage in place.” An adversary, Feaver evidently believes, will only negotiate in good faith when under pressure. He wastes no time with such nonsense as positive-sum outcomes; life, to Feaver, is simple: adversaries only understand the language of force. One might wonder how he deals with relatives or students; for a professor of political science to take such a perspective suggests that he skipped a couple of theory classes. But that is unfairly personal. Feaver is presenting the neo-con view and, as such, is quite correct: the language of force does indeed appear to be the only language that the neo-cons understand. Were he to say that the Iranian neo-cons (i.e., the Saddam war generation of secular military leaders that rose up literally in the trenches defending Iranian independence in perhaps the most vicious war since Vietnam) are dangerous because they only understand the language of force, he would be presenting a defensible intellectual position worthy of debate, but, as stated, his remark is useful only if read as revealing the prejudices of the neo-con/Likudnik worldview. Given the tenacity of Iran’s self-defense and the caution with which it has conducted its foreign policy when not under direct military attack, there is in truth every reason to assume that a genuinely conciliatory approach might elicit willingness to compromise on issues where mutual benefit can be identified. One might give Feaver the benefit of the doubt and assume that, as an intellectual, he can see this, but that in his capacity as presenter of the empire-builder’s world view, he would not mention it because such considerations are so far outside such a person’s perspective.

Feaver’s presentation of the neo-con/Likudnik attitude toward Iran is a highly valuable explanation of why the world has seen so much war this century.

NPT Review Conference: Can Ahmadinejad Seize the Moment?

The NPT review conference only occurs once every five years. This is Ahmadinejad’s chance. Will he blow it?
When Ahmadinejad arrives at the U.N. for May’s month-long NPT review conference, will he come with hubris and defiance or a skillful diplomatic effort to portray Iran as part of a moderate, reasoned global movement to create a nuclear-free Mideast?

Brasilia and Ankara are positively pleading with Tehran to give them something to justify a lowering of tensions, and that would probably please Moscow and Beijing as well. Even Cairo is now at least temporarily on Tehran’s side on this issue (perhaps fearing that more one-sided Western pressure will only serve to make Iranian acquisition of nuclear arms all the more likely).

Hypothesis: If Ahmadinejad takes a moderate pose and offers concessions, he will win big.

Supporting argument: Iran has pushed in-your-face confrontation pretty far; the elite has got to realize that Tehran is playing a very dangerous game…mostly to benefit Ahmadinejad’s career. Now Tehran has a marvelous opportunity to look good in a very high-profile context and right in Obama’s back yard. Countries are lining up to offer Iran support if only it will make some gesture to give them justification. A government would have to be truly inept to miss this chance. Ahmadinejad should thank Erdogan and Lula for their courage, thank Moscow and Beijing for their support, welcome “partnership” with Cairo to make the Mideast a safer place, and put something on the table that will get the attention of the IAEA.
Negating argument: Whatever Iran does will make absolutely no difference. The U.S. will continue bowing to the Israeli right, which pursues war fever for many reasons, only one of which is obsession with preventing any other country from defying Israel. Obama feels the need to play nice with conservatives on this emotional issue to protect his freedom to do liberal things on the medical and financial fronts. He is by nature not confrontational and will never take a stand on something this risky.

Climbing the Ladder of History

Human history is the story of man’s climb up the ladder of justice. The West now stands on the step of welcoming the Muslim world. The “long war” so glibly threatened by extremists of all stripes will be the penalty for failure to take this step.

Human history is, or at least one must so hope, the story of man’s climb up the ladder of social justice. Skipping a few steps, let us zero in on the history of the U.S. and summarize it in a sentence: if the first step was declaration of self-evident truths (and a bit of a mix-up with the day’s superpower), the second step was the inclusion of black men in the dream, and the third step was the inclusion of all women.

Each step brought the next into focus. Articulation of natural rights of humans led logically to abolition. Welcoming male ex-slaves as citizens and voters led logically to welcoming women. With each step, the emerging society improved. If the Declaration of Independence gave the vision inspiring the first step, then Lincoln’s warning that a house divided cannot survive articulated the vision of the second.

That double vision of self-evident rights exercised within a united house should today inspire us to raise our sights to the necessary fourth step. It is now time for the West to articulate a vision of a global political system that will welcome Muslims.

So difficult was it for American society to conceive of a social structure including black men that a near-suicidal fratricidal war had to be fought to accomplish it. Society matured a bit as the result of that lesson and outright war between men and women proved unnecessary to accomplish the next restructuring. Difficult though it was to carry through the resolution to share power, each invitation, each compromise with those formerly marginalized strengthened and enriched society. Now it is not national society but global society that must be restructured.

The immediate challenge is one that in particular faces the party leading the resistance, Americans, and the challenge is to articulate both the goal of inclusiveness and a practical process of achieving it. This cannot be simple. That slavery made a mockery of the Declaration of Independence today seems obvious beyond any need for comment, but it took American society a full generation of agonizing argument and another century of refinements even to approach racial equality. Again, the logic of a white man granting to his wife the same rights that he had granted to male ex-slaves today also seems obvious, but that step took three more generations.

Can reform of the complex global political system prove any easier? Provision will have to be made for tribes that choose not to modernize and states demanding a reform of what today are highly discriminatory nuclear rules. But start we must if we are to avoid the Long War nightmare evoked by extremists on both sides.

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.

Iran Nuclear Crisis: A Matter of Psychology

Voicing an important and seldom considered perspective, two years ago, Armand Erchadi, a Sorbonne researcher, described the nuclear crisis between Iran and the West as psychological, a result of a culture of fear:

la crise nucléaire actuelle entre l’Iran et la communauté internationale repose entièrement sur une question psychologique. La véritable urgence est de dénouer ce psychodrame fondé sur la peur et dont les acteurs se situent aussi bien au Moyen-Orient qu’en Occident.

His thesis is ever more persuasive. Ahmadinejad and his allies have played the fear card to the max since the recent election in Iran. Fear is the centerpiece of the Netanyahu clique. And in the U.S. since 9/11, fear has sold so well that the nation seems to have accepted a permanent war against it, a war that has never let Iran out of its sights, regardless of the lack of evidence of connections between that country and the gang of fearmongers that brought the terror to New York.

Erchadi describes Iran as filled with fear:

La peur est devenue depuis 1979 le fondement de la société iranienne. Malgré les mille et une résistances qu’elle oppose à l’État – des mouvements étudiants aux émeutes contre le rationnement de l’essence, des résistances ouvrières aux luttes féministes – les mollahs ont partiellement réussi à créer ce dont les régimes fascistes avaient à peine rêvé : un « homme nouveau ». Encadré, rééduqué, intoxiqué, l’homo iranicus est soumis à une constante surveillance biopolitique, qui vise, par la violence et par la peur, non seulement à remodeler son esprit, mais jusqu’à son corps même et sa façon de se vêtir. À l’intérieur des appartements, c’est la liberté d’expression, l’ouverture aux autres cultures, la chaleur des rapports humains. Mais dès que le seuil de la porte est franchi, les peaux se couvrent, les visages se ferment et les bouches deviennent muettes.

Perhaps he is overstating his case just a little. Now, two years later, we see thousands of Iranians rejecting that culture of fear. Nevertheless, Erchadi makes a serious and important point that merits careful consideration.

He makes the same general point about the West:

La peur ne se trouve pas d’un seul côté. Dans le monde occidental, elle est nourrie par l’ignorance de va-t-en-guerre néo-conservateurs…. Avec, comme souvent, un temps de retard sur leurs collègues américains, une coterie d’intellectuels français en appelle à mots couverts à la reprise des saintes croisades.

I won’t spoil the rest of his essay; read it all – especially the last paragraph.

We are all trapping ourselves in psychoses of our own making.