Iran

Love Thy Enemy

Is talk of a U.S.-Iranian dialogue realistic?

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It's not often that one has the stomach to call on political realists—all too frequently purveyors of foreign policy stalemate and pals of despots worldwide. However, realism was called for last week when American intelligence agencies released a National Intelligence Estimate claiming that Iran had halted work on its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Even half-hearted assessments of the national interest would have produced more insightful responses to the NIE than the ones that we got.

With everyone focusing on the nuclear issue, few noticed that regardless of whether Iran produces atomic weapons or not, its acrimonious rivalry with the United States in the Middle East is bound to escalate. Given that the U.S. went to war in 1991 to prevent Iraq from imposing its hegemony in the Persian Gulf area, does it make sense to assume that Washington would readily allow a threatening Iran to do what the Iraqis failed to?

There were two types of reactions to the NIE, both inadequate for dealing with the real stakes in American-Iranian hostility throughout the Middle East. The first focused on the fact that President George W. Bush, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney, had in recent months amplified their war rhetoric against Iran, even though Bush was told last August by the director of national intelligence, Michael McConnell, that Iran's nuclear program "may be suspended." This seemed to contradict an earlier statement by the president that McConnell had told him no such thing.

The second reaction was rather different. With the nuclear threat allegedly on hold, politicians and commentators suddenly began advising the administration to engage Iran in some sort of discussion. Senate majority leader Harry Reid called on Bush to do what President Ronald Reagan had done with the Soviet Union and push for "a diplomatic surge necessary to effectively address the challenges posed by Iran." Republican senator Chuck Hagel asked the administration to show the same flexibility toward Iran that it had shown toward North Korea. Rand Beers, who served as national security advisor to John Kerry's presidential campaign, observed: "Simply put, we have an imminent need for a real dialogue with Iran, not a military confrontation."

It was certainly unsettling that Bush and Cheney were talking about a war with Iran when they knew, or should have known, that their stated justification for war was no longer valid. However, the rush toward advocating dialogue and flexibility was equally incomprehensible.

A dialogue over what? No one seemed particularly clear on that point. Suddenly, it seemed, the problem was not power politics and the thrusts and parries of the U.S.-Iranian quarrel, but the Bush administration's stubborn refusal to be conciliatory. During the 1980s, in the midst of the debate over nuclear missiles in Europe, French President Francois Mitterrand famously declared: "The pacifists are in the West but the missiles are in the East." Of course there were missiles in the West then, just as there are those in Washington now who still favor war against Iran; but it's also undeniable that those wanting to open up to Iran are mostly on the American side, while Iran's leaders continue to relentlessly pursue strategic advantage in their own neighborhood.

The Iranian's are playing three-dimensional chess in the Middle East, while the U.S. is playing with its hankie. American policy in the region suffers from a lack of ideas. The administration's disorientation after the release of the NIE report showed that in the absence of a war option (and an unpersuasive war option at that), the U.S. remains unsure what to do about Iran. But the Democrats are equally at sea. Even administration critic Flynt Leverett, a former National Security Council adviser on the Middle East, admitted recently that "[r]egrettably, opposition Democrats are not defining a genuine alternative. Beyond criticism of President Bush's 'saber rattling,' Democratic presidential candidates offer, for the most part, only vacuous rhetoric about 'engaging' Iran."

For example, what is the U.S. doing about Iran's alliance with Syria, and their joint patronage of Hamas and Hizbullah? Hamas is dead set on wrecking American efforts to bring about a settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and several months ago the movement mounted a successful coup against the Fatah movement in Gaza. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal lives in Damascus, is a frequent visitor to Tehran, and although Syria will send sporadic signals that it is displeased with the Islamist group, this is chaff designed to keep alive the illusion that Syria and Iran are on different wavelengths. Nothing will divide Syria from Iran when the relationship brings so many foreign supplicants to Damascus with offers of concessions to President Bashar Assad, if only he would consider abandoning Iran. Assad takes the concessions, offers none of his own, and yet the visitors still keep coming.

Similarly, Iran and Syria are putting on a "good cop, bad cop" routine in Lebanon. Damascus is steadily re-imposing its hegemony over its smaller neighbor, neutralizing or assassinating those who oppose a Syrian return. Iran is backing Syria up because Hizbullah will benefit. The Shiite group knows that the stabilization of Lebanon under a sovereign government would force it to surrender its weapons; and without weapons Hizbullah would cease to be Hizbullah. Iran needs the party and its arms to sustain its influence in the Levant, as well as to preserve a deterrence capability at Israel's doorstep. Damascus, in turn, needs Hizbullah to intimidate Syria's Lebanese foes. The Iranians are proving almost as instrumental as the Syrians in reversing the gains of the 2005 Cedar Revolution.

The U.S., meanwhile, continues to back Lebanon's anti-Syrian March 14 coalition. However, it is increasingly doing so from a distance. The Bush administration has spent much less money than Iran in Lebanon, and has not pressed its wealthier Arab allies to make up for the deficit. In fact it has been remarkably silent as one such ally, Qatar, has played an essential role in bolstering the Assad regime and Hizbullah. Worse, in the run-up to the ongoing crisis over choosing a new Lebanese president, Bush endorsed what would prove to be a disastrous French diplomatic initiative to facilitate an election. The initiative, in practical terms, invited the Syrians back into Lebanese presidential politics, undermining Washington's and Paris' declared aim of defending Lebanese sovereignty.

The Bush administration has also been catatonic in Congress. For example it has done nothing to press for passage of the Syria Accountability and Liberation Act, legislation that would substantially strengthen and widen U.S. sanctions against Syria. The law is blocked in the House Foreign Affairs Committee because of disagreement over wording between the ranking Democrat and Republican members. The reasons for this are mainly domestic and electoral. Yet thanks to parochial politicking, the U.S. government has been denied a valuable stick with which to defend its interests in the Middle East.

So, how does a dialogue look now? Iran would gladly draw the U.S. into a lengthy discussion of everything and nothing, and use this empty gabfest as a smokescreen to advance its agenda. But diplomacy is not an end in itself; to be meaningful it has to achieve specific aims and be based on confidence that both sides seek a mutually advantageous deal. Nothing suggests the Iranians have reached that stage yet.

That's because Iran believes it is winning in the region. The U.S. seems unable to deploy the same array of foreign policy instruments as the Iranians, even if it is vastly more powerful; America's principal Arab allies are anemic, their mostly geriatric regimes illegitimate; and America's attention span abroad often seems so limited that an adversary's favored tactic is to just wait until its officials lose interest and head for the lecture circuit. The Iranians are right, they are winning; at least for the time being.

Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.

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  1. Given that the U.S. went to war in 1991 to prevent Iraq from imposing its hegemony in the Persian Gulf area, does it make sense to assume that Washington would readily allow a threatening Iran to do what the Iraqis failed to?

    Iraq invaded two of its neighbors in ten years.

    Iraq hasn’t started a single war in the past millennium.

    For someone who claims to look down on realpolitik, Young certainly does prioritize nation-state power relations above stuff like how many people are getting killed.

  2. Er, that second one should be “Iran.”

  3. Joe —

    I’ll grant that the states which have occupied Mesopotamia in succession for the past millennium or so haven’t been particularly aggressive, I take that with a grain of salt. After all, the *regime* that currently constitutes the state is only almost three decades old, and they are very different in goals and temperament than their predecessor, as they in turn were different than theirs.

    I agree that Iran is no aggressor state (in the traditional sense), but just am less sanguine about ancient history being an appropriate guide for that determination.

  4. Michael Young wants desperately for the USA to bring secular democracy to the Middle East. I’m sorry, but the future of the Middle East is going to be decided by the people who live there, not by the people who live here. We will have spent a trillion dollars in Iraq in the past five years for the privilege of spending another trillion dollars in Iraq over the next ten years. Do we really want to invade Iran as well?

  5. And by Mesopotamia I meant, er, Persia.

  6. Michael Young wants desperately for the USA to bring secular democracy to the Middle East.

    Wrong. Michael Young wants pro-US governments in the middle east. He has no interest in democratic elections. I didn’t see him cheer when the Palestinians held election that were won by Hamas.

  7. Joe: Anglo-Persian war. 150 years is good stretch but a bit shy of a millennium. Click handle for link.

  8. Michael, have you ever considered why the Iranians are advisaries? Could it be the decades the of the Shah’s vicious rule instigated and supported by the U.S.? Or the the invasion by Iraq with the encouragement of Washington (resulting in 1 million Iranian casualties). The shooting down of a Iranian civilian airliner in 1988 with NO apology from the first Bush administration? How about invading two countries on its borders with at best, questionable legality? Or the American support of armed guerilla groups within Iran fighting their government? Just a few questions to ask before characterizing that country as an enemy.

  9. Rakune and Elemenope are right.

    I should have limited my comments to the existing regime, since that’s what we’re talking about.

  10. I am so happy to see people making these comments. when i was reading the article it smacked of poor analysis of the parties motivations and unexplained assumptions.

  11. Let’s not forget the influence of Bush’s bad publicity as the lamest duck in the history of American lame ducks. Hobbesian logic will probably slow (but probably not stop) Iranian saber-rattling in response to the U.S.’s moment of (relative!) geopolitical weakness.

  12. Honestly, if you just take a good look at the history of the past 70 years of the United States as well as the history of every major empire the results are the same. Those nations they label as ‘evil’ or ‘enemy’ are usually the ones which they are oppressing the most.

  13. Could it be the decades the of the Shah’s vicious rule instigated and supported by the U.S.?

    compare and contrast the horrible oppression of the masses by the shah with today’s open, free, and tolerant government. you make an excellent point.

  14. “I didn’t see him cheer when the Palestinians held election that were won by Hamas.”

    I’m not convinced that an electoral victory for Hamas is a victory for democracy.

    I’m trying to imagine Hamas losing an election and taking its place with the loyal opposition and I just can’t. …it’s not as if thoroughly undemocratic parties have never won elections in the past, you know?

  15. A dialogue over what?

    It would start with Iraq, and how Iraq is going to get stablized.

    It would probably end just about there.

    The fact that politically the Republicans need a stablized Iraq was the whole point of the NIE release in the first place. Decriminalize the Iranians, and it’s a lot easier to sit down and talk to them.

    American policy in the region suffers from a lack of ideas.

    American policy has lacked ideas since at least the end of WWII.

    And the fact that our “policy” did not “lack ideas” then, had more to do with our enemies making it easy for us, than it did with our government possessing any sort of innate brilliance.

    what is the U.S. doing about Iran’s alliance with Syria, and their joint patronage of Hamas and Hizbullah?

    What should the US be doing about it? Unless we really do intend to prevent Iran from conquering the region because we want to do that ourselves.

    The Bush administration has spent much less money than Iran in Lebanon, and has not pressed its wealthier Arab allies to make up for the deficit.

    Ah, now we get to the gist of it….

    thanks to parochial politicking, the U.S. government has been denied a valuable stick with which to defend its interests in the Middle East.

    Precisely what “interests” does the US have in the region, if it has no ideas about the region?

    I mean ideas that rise above cave man mentality, like, “ugh, me want oil, ugh.”

    In spite of the criticism he gets around here, I often like Michael Young’s articles anyway, just because he’s got a different perspective and I learn from it. But this time, it sounds like he should have just come out and said “The US isn’t saving Lebanon and that really sucks the big one.”

  16. ” Nothing suggests the Iranians have reached that stage yet. ”

    The american’s haven’t reached that stage yet either.

  17. Young’s article demonstrates something I’ve suspected for a long time: neoconservatives hate diplomacy because they suck at it, because they don’t know what it is.

    Young’s response to calls for dialogue is to refer to them as calls for “appeasement” or being more “concilliatory.” These people literally do not understand that diplomacy can be as aggressive or accommodating as the diplomats make it. They just assume that “diplomacy” means “completely caving.”

    See the recent neoconservative-negotiated deal with India about its nuclear program. They gave away the store, because that’s what they thing diplomacy is.

  18. joe,

    You’re an idiot.

    Thank you.

  19. Mr. Young,

    If the US and France aren’t going to help Lebanese moderates why don’t you turn to the one democracy that can help you – Israel?

    It’s only blind Arab nationalism that prevents you from seeing who your real allies are.

  20. “””Young’s article demonstrates something I’ve suspected for a long time: neoconservatives hate diplomacy because they suck at it, because they don’t know what it is.”””

    Do it my way or I’ll kick your ass!!!! Isn’t that diplomatic enough? 😉

  21. And what do you think of Obadiah Shoher’s arguments against the peace process ( samsonblinded.org/blog/we-need-a-respite-from-peace.htm )?

  22. Michael Young criticizes democrats for demanding dialog with Iran. Don’t they know that the dialog has been proceeding for months now in spite of everything? I’m sure the democrats do know, but are exploiting the public’s ignorance as a political opportunity. This will come back and bite them once the dialog becomes more public.

    The main topic of the dialog is of course stabilizing Iraq. We are stymied by them, they are stymied by us. We both have legitimate interests in Iraq. Yes, in spite of the evil of the Iranian regime, that nation still has legitimate interests. They have had these interests for a thousand years and more.

    Young is right that those who simply want to sprinkle a little dialog powder on the problem are misguided; but he’s also wrong to condemn power politics. As long as we’re projecting our power, we’ll be engaged in power politics. It’s a fact of life. The only way to avoid it is by not projecting our power. I don’t think that Young would advocate our turning into Canada.

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