Dear President Trump . . .

Kerry & Zarif at the tableDear President Trump,

Thank you for again re-certifying the Iran nuclear deal the other day. Although you did not want to do this, and although you are still looking for a way to rip up the deal, you listened to and took the advice of all your major national security advisers. That was a wise decision. Your European allies have breathed a sigh of relief, and many of us hope that you will make every effort to re-certify the deal next time around.

I know you have a lot on your plate, but just to say…. It seemed clear from your speech in Saudi Arabia last month that your Middle East foreign policy includes moves to increasingly isolate Iran. Wouldn’t it be wiser to get the diplomats, negotiators, and mediators to work to try to bring Iran out from the cold? If a deal with Iran could be reached on its nuclear program, why not on other crucial matters?

Wisdom is gained from history’s learned lessons. You may be unaware of the big mess, really big mess, that resulted when in 2003 the Bush White House snubbed Iran’s unprecedented and formal diplomatic reach-out to the U.S. The snub occurred because many of the President’s closest advisers talked him into it. For the next ten years Iran ran it’s nuclear program in full tilt boogie. That snub is a huge reason why it became so difficult, and took so many years of trying, to get Iran to the negotiating table for its nuclear program. You can read a summary of the snub here, and about the stunning details that Iran wanted to discuss with the U.S. It’s pretty clear what has been lost by not talking.

Of course the Iran nuclear deal is not a perfect deal. Nothing in this world is. And no future deals with Iran, or with any other state, will be perfect either. But I think it would be unwise in the extreme, and harmful to America, for a U.S. president not to put honest, serious, and concerted efforts into trying to build diplomatic relations with Iran. How about using the nuclear deal as a springboard for that? Not to mention that Iran has recently re-elected a president who is open to talking.

Diplomats and negotiators have a lot of wisdom. And as one of the biblical kings has reminded us, after seeing peace ensue from unlikely diplomatic mission, wisdom is better than weapons of war.

Thank you for listening.

A concerned American,

Charles Strohmer

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Image permission Press TV, via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: If you would enjoy more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

The Next U.S. President and the Iran Nuclear Deal

glass chess piecesThere are good and sufficient reasons for arguing for and against the nuclear agreement with Iran. Far too much ambiguity exists in human affairs, especially in international relations, to conclude in any absolute sense that either camp has nailed it. The optimists tend to applaud the deal. The pessimists tend to conclude that the deal has us stepping off the cliff. The former trust heavily in the good in human nature. The latter assume, to borrow a word from the field of theology, that human sin prevents reaching responsible compromises among adversaries.

And then there are the diplomats and negotiators. In the real world of international relations, with its perennial admixtures of the constructive and the destructive, they are tasked with finding ways wiser than war. The dilemma they face is called “the problem of peaceful change,” and they focus on finding responsible compromises to try to solve it. To put it in words from the New Testament, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Here, it is regrettably affirmed that in any given situation between individuals, peace may not be possible, yet one of the parties at least still must try. For peace may be possible.

If that is the predicament between individuals, and everyone knows that it is, then in predicaments between adversarial nations, efforts toward more peaceable agreements will be much more difficult. But finding wisdom for war prevention may be possible. This is what diplomats and negotiators are tasked to do. And so we now have, instead of war, the nuclear agreement with Iran.

There will be a new American president one year from now and a new Iranian president a year and a half later. Only God, and novelists, know the future. But the following “if … then” scenario seems a pretty sure bet. If the next U.S. president takes steps to pull us out of the nuclear agreement then the hardliners in Tehran will cry foul. They will say to Iran’s more moderate President Hassan Rouhani, whose team negotiated the nuclear deal with the P5+1 nations, “We told you so. You can’t trust the United States.” And then the regime will most likely manipulate into office in 2018 a nightmare Iranian president.

The regime employed this very strategy ten years ago. As Trita Parsi explains at length in his book Treacherous Alliance, Tehran formally reached out to Washington in the spring of 2003 with a comprehensive proposal to start high-level talks on points of contention between the two nations, including about Iran’s nuclear program. But the George W. Bush administration immediately and rudely snubbed the reach out, despite the fact that Iran had been a key actor with the United States in ousting the Taliban and al Qaeda from power in Afghanistan. “An opportunity for a major breakthrough had been willfully wasted,” Paris writes. In Tehran, “the American nonresponse was perceived as an insult.”

The hardliners played the snub skillfully. They undermined the peaceable foreign policy initiatives that Iran’s then president, the more moderate Mohammad Khatami, had in place toward America. They excluded nearly every moderate political candidate from seeking seats in the next parliamentary elections. And they stacked the presidential deck in favor of the sophomore mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in 2005.

Mark Twain is reputed to have said that history may not repeat itself but it sure does rhyme. Constitutionally, it would be possible through executive orders for the next America president to disrespect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear agreement is formally known. New U.S. sanctions could be introduced and the U.S. could withdraw from key committees that oversee the accord.

Of course neither the U.S. nor the other signatory nations to the deal should not sit passively by if Iran makes a habit of violating terms of the agreement, but harsh penalties are in place for dealing with such deceit.

Mr., or Ms., Next President, give the deal a chance. But go even further. Task diplomats and negotiators to use the deal to seek to better U.S. – Iran relations. Wisdom is better than weapons of war.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Neural, permission via Creative Commons.

This editorial was originally published in The Mountain Press, Sunday, November 1, 2015.

Charles Strohmer is a frequent writer on politics, religion, and international relations. He is the author of several books and many articles and is the founding director of The Wisdom Project.

A personal note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present on important issues of the day, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here and then find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it here, tell some friends! Thank you.

Israel and the Iran Nuclear Deal

choicesThere has been very little reporting in the U.S. media about what Israelis think of the Iran nuclear deal, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as it is formally known. In fact, given the media’s persistent focus on Prime Minister Netanyhu’s condemnation of the deal, it is tempting to think that every Jew inside Israel is also against the deal. But this is far from true.

I only hinted at this in a previous post about the nuclear agreement, so I thought it would be good to say more about the notable leaders from across the spectrum in Israel who cautiously support the agreement. But I’m not going to do that in my own words. I want you to hear from someone else, someone whose “first personal encounter with Iran left me surrounded by death and destruction.” Read: Someone who could easily justify a view that opposed the nuclear deal, instead cautiously supports it. Why?

This someone is Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff. I realize there is controversy and contention over the nuclear agreement even among friends, so I urge you to read his article, published in The Jerusalem Post on the eve of the agreement’s assured passage through the U.S. Congress. It is “in large part because of my memories [that] I stand with the growing number of Israelis and Americans, including many Jewish Americans, who support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran,” Resnicoff writes.

Sukkot structure with ladsIn the interest of full disclosure, Rabbi Resnicoff is a friend, but that is not why I want you to hear him. I have read a lot views about the deal, as I’m sure many of you have, but his article may be the best of the lot: in its sensitivity to both sides, its insider’s street cred, and the wise lesson that the solemn Jewish holiday of Sukkot can teach us about the nuclear deal.

Like the walls of the sukkot, Rabbi Resnicoff writes, the agreement is “a little shaky, and it might not last, but if it is the best that we can build right now – and I agree with the Israeli and American experts who say that it is – then build it we must.”

“[M]any Jewish groups have been trying to create the impression of consensus against the deal across the American Jewish community. But polling shatters that illusion, revealing that 63 percent of respondents who have an opinion on the deal are in favor of it. Top pro-Israel members of Congress from the past four decades have spoken out in favor of the deal. I was among more than 400 rabbis from across America’s denominational spectrum who signed a letter recommending support for the deal, at the same time urging increased efforts to fight Iran’s actions against Israel and other nations.”

“In Israel, too, the myth of the anti-deal consensus has been shattered. A pivotal point was the release of a letter in favor of the deal signed by dozens of the deans of Israel’s defense and intelligence elite, from former heads of the Mossad, Shin Bet and the Israeli nuclear program, to generals and admirals from all branches of the military.”

Read his entire article in The Jerusalem Post for full story of why Rabbi Resnicoff supports the deal. And then let’s have some conversation about it (use “Leave a Reply” at the end of this post).

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff, captain, USN (ret.), is a former special assistant on values and vision to the secretary and chief of staff of the US Air Force. He is a former national director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee and was the first rabbi to study at the US Naval War College.

Charles Strohmer is a frequent writer on politics, religion, and international relations. He is the author of several books and many articles and is the founding director of The Wisdom Project.

Top image by William Ward (via Creative Commons). Lower image from atzimmes (via Creative Commons).

A personal note from Charles Strohmer: If you would like more of the perspectives that wagingwisdom.com seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here wagingwisdom.com, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it, tell some friends! Thank you.

The Idiot’s Guide to the Iran Nuclear Deal

Iran nuclear facility at ArakWe don’t live in a perfect world, and the Iran nuclear agreement is not a perfect deal. There’s also an old principle in negotiations that goes something like this: People who are not at the table think they are better negotiators than those around the table. We’ve been hearing that posturing in the news about the agreement, and on talk radio. Of course the deal deserves to be debated, and honest people are going to disagree about it. Fortunately, with the signing of the agreement (July 14), its details can be found on the Web, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and others who have actually been at the table, are now out and about everywhere explaining the deal.

As someone who has been writing about U.S. – Middle East relations for many years, and who believes that diplomacy is better than weapons of war, here are seven reasons why I think the nuclear agreement with Iran will make the world a little safer. And that’s a good thing.

(1) It is very telling that President Obama and respected, high-level supporters of the deal – including two dozen U.S. generals and not a few high-profile Israelis, not to mention those who negotiated the deal – have been much more publicly forthcoming about its risks and vulnerabilities than many of its detractors have been about its benefits and substantial achievements. (There are, however, sensible critics of the deal. They do not decry the deal in toto. Rather, they acknowledge its value, while arguing, for instance, to shore up vulnerabilities in the deal and thereby strengthen the agreement.)

(2) This is not an agreement between the United States and Iran. And multilateral diplomacy is not in the same ballpark as trying to settle an argument with your neighbor, or plan the next family vacation with your spouse, or negotiate with the prospective buyer of your house to clinch the sale, or hammer out a difficult new policy on the library board. This is about negotiating nations. At the table are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany. (The so-called P5+1.) Six world powers; five are permanent members of the UN Security Council. Plus Iran.

To hear some people talk, it’s as if the United States has some sort of magnetic hold on China, France, Russia, the U.K., and Germany that can move them withersoever it wills. That’s crazy thinking. Those five sovereign international stake holders, plus Iran, all brought to the process their own national and security interests. All of that went into the mix, tumbled around, and was determinative of outcomes – from the pre-negotiations that got them all to the table in the first place, to securing agendas and procedures, to the actual talks, to the publicity and the deadlines, to the signing of the agreement. It was a huge achievement. With Iran’s national and security interest pulling against the P5+1, and because this was true at times even among the P5+1 nations, none of those outcomes was guaranteed.

(3) The deal should be seen as vital in the (still ongoing) diplomatic recovery of the United States. The path to recovery has been long and tedious and necessary, due in no small measure to the severe damage inflicted on America’s reputation by the Bush administration’s imprudent snub of Tehran’s diplomatic reach-out to Washington in the spring of 2003. The recovery has taken more than a decade and a new approach to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, especially toward Iran, and led by a White House that is willing and able to talk, really talk, to adversaries (not make absolutized demands as preconditions for talks).

Iran uranium conversion plant at IsfahanIf, as many of its detractors want to see happen, the United States walks away from the Iran nuclear accord – which the seven nations’ emissaries have worked tirelessly, in sickness and in health, to forge – it will miserably depress the diplomatic recovery and U.S. credibility will suffer terribly in the international community. America’s good faith will be called into question, big time, and that would usher in an era of international relations that will not be good for Americans or for the rest of world.

(4) Diplomacy and negotiations are better than weapons of war. It may surprise many Americans to know that conservative Republican foreign policy toward the Middle East has been adjusting and adapting itself to the discredited political ideology of neoconservatism that was prominent in White House policymaking decisions about the Middle East during the first term of the George W. Bush administration.

Neoconservatism does not know how to negotiate with adversaries, and it does not favor diplomacy with Iran but, rather, military action. The political shift of many Congressional conservatives to this strategy can be heard in their broken-record, militaristic language about how the U.S. should deal with Iran’s nuclear program.

Pay attention to the language of Republican presidential candidates, not to mention that of liberal hawks, when they talk about their approach to U.S. foreign policy toward Iran. The absorption and promotion of neoconservative foreign policy into the worldview of American conservatism is little understood, alarmingly so.

(5) Diplomatically in the world, fifteen years is long time. Without the Iran nuclear accord, Iran is only a few months away from “breakout time” – the length of time it would need to produce one nuclear weapon. The deal, however, curbs Iran’s nuclear activities in ways that push breakout to around one year, for fifteen years. The year 2030, however, has left many fearful because by then breakout could be back to a few months.

But fifteen years is a long time. By then, Iran’s international actions may have shown a steady posture of coming out of the cold. The world may find an Iran that has not been cheating or kicking out the inspectors. The P5+1 plus Iran may have pulled together on one or two other significant issues. Iran’s government or interests may change. Who knows? In other words, that fifteen years may – please God – buy the world lot of good. If so, how can that be a bad deal? Alternatively, if Iran begins gearing up to produce a nuclear weapon, the P5+1 will have had time to gain additional wisdom for deciding what to do about that threat, and by sustaining its international credibility the United States will have accrued a lot of clout in the decision making.

Iran uranium enrichment plant @ Qom (BBC)(6) The Middle East has become a fragile region. Without this nuclear deal, it is probable that extremely negative consequences that make the region more unstable will arise not far down the road. On the other hand, the Iran nuclear agreement could become the leaven for a wider strategy that makes the Middle East a safer place. With Iran’s nuclear behavior restrained, Israel should calm down some, and the Arab Gulf states should be less nervous and less inclined to seek their own nuclear weapons. Although it is unlikely that Persian Iran and the Arab states will any time soon drop their enmity, the nuclear deal may help them to cooperate against common enemies such as the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).

(7) If Congress votes to “disapprove” the agreement (a vote is scheduled for September), and if President Obama does not follow through on his promise to veto that vote, we would get the worst of all worlds. Iran will be the beneficiary of the lost deal, the U.S. the bad guy, with Russia and China rushing in to fill the vacuum, and the world will see not a united but a divided America on this extraordinary achievement. And even if the agreement stands, the next President could have enough domestic political support to pull the U.S. out of the deal, or to make U.S. support of the deal so unrealistically conditional as to become untenable.

Conclusion. If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends but your adversaries. War does not resolve international problems. Diplomacy and negotiations accomplish that. If you agree with this editorial, now is the time to write or email your representative in Congress and tell him or her to vote to “approve” the Iran nuclear agreement. It is not based on trust but verification. It is currently the wisest available way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. The world will be better off with the agreement than without it.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Addendum: A couple of days after I wrote the above article, I read a piece in The Atlantic explaining how Iran could derail the nuclear deal.

Charles Strohmer is a frequent writer on politics, religion, and international relations. He is the author of several books and many articles and is the founding director of The Wisdom Project.

Top image: Iran’s heavy water reactor and production plant at Arak (AP). Middle image: uranium conversion plant at Isfahan (Alamy). Lower image: uranium enrichment plant at Qom (BBC).

A personal note from Charles Strohmer: If you want more of the perspectives that wagingwisdom.com seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here wagingwisdom.com, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it, tell some friends! Thank you.

An Imperfect Nuclear Deal with Iran: What Else?

Kerry & Zarif at the tableYou only have to glance at news headlines in recent days to see that the nuclear deal with Iran raised as many tough questions as it solved. Jubilant Iranians in Tehran danced in the streets after the April 2 announcement while Iranian hardliners criticized the deal. In America, Republican presidential hopefuls were everywhere in the media voicing their opposition while President Obama explained his support of the deal to Thomas Friedman at the White House. In Israel, some editorials cautiously favored the deal while Benjamin Netanyahu stated plainly that the deal threatened Israel’s survival. The mix of opinions and emotions ranged far and wide and the wrangling won’t go away anytime soon.

Now that a solid interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program has been reached between Iran and the P5+1 nations (the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany), the parties will bump along toward the June 30 signing deadline. As they do, during the next twelve weeks you’re going to hear high-level critics and defenders of the deal abuzz in the media, locked in a fiercely pitched verbal battle arguing their cases and trying to increase public and political support for their side.

Behind all the pushing and shoving, of course, is the question of whether this is a good deal? We all want to know the answer to this. And the only way to know – let’s be honest – is to understand the nuts and bolts of the agreement. But let’s face it, most of us don’t have the specialized technical and scientific nuclear training required for that kind of knowing. Even if we did, it will only be after the signing, perhaps well into the future, before we will know whether this was a good deal. The unpredictability of domestic and international politics, if not the intentions of a signatory, can scuttle even a good deal after it has been implemented. And there are other possibilities. The signing deadline might be pushed into the future or it may never take place.

Meantime, before June 30, as the final very technical details are being resolved (that is the goal), you will be hearing from supporters and naysayers about issues such as the upsides and downsides of the inspections, the break-out time line, the sunset clause, sanctions relief, Iran’s ballistic missiles, and an array of other strengths and deficiencies of the agreement. We will also be hearing that the deal doesn’t do a thing stop Iran from bankrolling terrorism or from quashing human rights. But diplomats, negotiators, and deal signers know that you’ve got to start somewhere.

Iranian workers at nucelar plantWho, then, are we to believe? What are we to think about this? It seems so murky. And what about trusting Iran? But the deal is not based on trust, President Obama said, but on an “unprecedented verification” inspections regime. Everyone will have to make up their own mind about the agreement. My advice during the coming weeks would be to listen chiefly and carefully to the hopeful but cautious supporters of the agreement who also admit to and discuss its weaknesses. Ignore the critics who have nothing good to say about the agreement.

No deal is going to cover all the bases, never mind being perfect. And if in the end, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who has the final say, does not accept it, the deal will not be signed by Iran. Despite all the uncertainties that remain, what we’re getting is far batter that what anyone anticipated when the current round of serious, high-level talks commenced in February 2013. (Diplomacy is often protracted, intense, and boring, with deals emerging after all-nighters and a lot of coffee. Iran and the P5+1 have been in various levels of talks about Iran’s nuclear program since June 2006.)

What we’re getting is basically an arms control agreement. Iran has agreed to scale back its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. If the agreement is in good measure successful, it will be historic, not only because it would help usher Iran back into the community of nations or because it would be a giant step toward ending the thirty-five-year-old cold war between the United States and Iran.

If successful, the framework of the pact could also be used to break the pattern of nuclear proliferation that has been taking place since World War Two (think India, Pakistan, North Korea). Thinking paradigmatically, the agreement with Iran could be a template for preventing nuclear proliferation. And that would be historic.

There are only two options to this deal. One option is increased and stricter sanctions, which would destabilize the region even more. The other is bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities, which would certainly be the prelude to another U.S. war in the region. So there is the stark reality: the deal, stricter sanctions, or war. Given the likely ramifications of the latter two options, this agreement is a significant accomplishment and probably the best alternative.

Iran and P5+1 nego table (uncredited photo)There are good and sufficient reasons, therefore, for welcoming this arms control agreement, despite its imperfection. Differences remain on both sides and must be resolved for the June 30 signing, and both sides want to see the deal improved in their favor before its signing. So much wrangling will take place around the table also. Who knows what the outcome of this final stage of negotiations will be? Only novelists know the future.

It is not the done thing in foreign policy circles to ask for prayers. The secularism of the circle rules that out. But if you are a praying person, you might want to pray that the agreement will be successful. It seems like a reasonable deal. The space that the diplomats have worked tirelessly to create for the world on this crucial issue is so much better than an Iran with nukes.

Outcomes cannot be guaranteed and troubling concerns will remain unanswered on June 30. But wisdom has a vital interest in seeing international relations established on mutual ground for mutual good amid their diversity. Wisdom is better than weapons of war.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Here is the full text of the April 2 agreement.

Here is President Obama’s very forthright discussion with Thomas Friedman about the June 30 agreement.

Here is a series of in-depth posts – they start here – about what turns out to be the surprising history of U.S. – Iran relations since 1979.

Top photo courtesy of Press TV. Center photo courtesy of IIPA via Ghetty. Lower photo courtesy ICHR Iran.

A personal note from Charles Strohmer: If you want more of the perspectives that wagingwisdom.com seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here wagingwisdom.com, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it, tell some friends! Thank you.

IRAN NUKES DEAL

hour glass 1 (Willi Heidlebach)Behind the cautious rhetoric from President Obama about reaching an agreement with Iran on its nuclear energy program, you don’t have to listen very hard to know that he really wants a deal. And for more than a year now, the public pronouncements about the talks from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani seem to indicate that he has the same hope. But Rouhani’s most recent comment, made in Tehran, is instructive for both the United States and Iran.

As talks between Iran and the P5+1 group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) wind down in Vienna this week, with the November 24 deadline fast approaching, the U.S. and Iran held a session of bilateral talks on the deal. In Tehran on Wednesday, November 19, Rouhani said that if “the opposite party in the negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran has the political will for a deal and avoids excessive demands, the conditions are prepared for the conclusion of a deal.” Apparently this means that the key players in Tehran are of one mind on core issues.

But this may be a misleading assumption. Although Rouhani and his team of nuclear negotiators are of a moderate political persuasion, at least according to Middle East lights, and may indeed be united in reaching an agreement, they have been battling strong opposition to a deal from political hardliners in the regime. And of course the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has the make-or-break authority on any international deal. (For the record, he has stated many times that Iran does not want nuclear weapons because it is against Islamic law.)

Concurrently in the States, as Obama’s team seeks to reach an agreement, it too has been facing strong and sustained opposition from Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and at home from political hardliners in Congress, the Jewish lobby, and talk radio pundits. The word “compromise” is anathema to the “anti-deal” groups, who are unable, or unwilling, to see the wisdom of keeping diplomacy going in order to bring this cliffhanger to an equitable agreement.

I wrote several posts, beginning here, about the serious ramifications that followed for many years after the George W. Bush administration’s diplomatic snub of Iran in 2003. When Iran reached out to the United States in 2003, Iran had a reform-minded president, Seyyed Mohammed Khatami, and a foreign policy team that sought, under Khatami’s leadership, cooperation with America and the rest of the West. The Bush White House rudely nixed further progress on that.

Now that the two states have been holding high-level talks for more than a year, a fair and just agreement must not be lost by the two president’s caving in at the last minute to the opposition groups.

If an agreement cannot be reached by the November 24 deadline, the talks should be extended to iron out the minutia. If an agreement is not reached and the talks end sans an extension, potential for cooperation between the West and Iran may be set back for years if not for decades.

Worse, hardliners in the U.S. who have been calling for bombing Iran may then get their way. If so, the hardliners in Iran will have the excuse they have been waiting for, as they had in 2003 with Khatami, to blackball the moderate Rouhani and install another Ahmadinejad. Worse still, you won’t like the blowback to the bombing.

Wisdom is better than weapons of war. Outside the meeting rooms of power, we ordinary mortals can feel so helpless in these situations. But there is an old saying: Prayer changes things. If you are a praying person, pray that the two presidents will succeed.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Willi Heidelbach (permission via Creative Commons)

WHAT IF IRAN AND THE UNITED STATES . . . .

Statue - Saddam HusseinAs the implications of President George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” became clearer in 2002 and 2003, editorials appeared in America wondering how Al Gore would have responded to the 9/11 attack on America had he been the U.S. president. Would Gore have begun a “war on terrorism?” Would he have gone to war in Afghanistan? Would he have invaded Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein?

These were not silly questions. For one thing, the election results were so close that it was a Supreme Court decision that decided who won the election. But the questions really went to the different political philosophies of the two politicians. Bush, a conservative Republican and former governor of Texas, was a kind of idealist realist on foreign policy who, it turned out, leaned strongly on neoconservatism immediately after 9/11 and for the rest of his first term. Gore, a liberal Democrat and Bill Clinton’s vice-president, was a fan of liberal internationalism and multilateralism. So it could reasonably be expected that President Gore would have responded to the 9/11 attack with at least some markedly dissimilar policies to those of President Bush.

Of course it’s impossible to know how things would have been different, if much at all, in Afghanistan and Iraq between, say, 2001-2004 had Al Gore been the president. Nevertheless, it was good to see a thought experiment from foreign policy community trickling down into the street to get people thinking and talking about this. In foreign policy circles it’s know as counterfactual analysis, in which policy makers and advisors imagine alternative pathways into the future.

Since history, so to speak, is path-dependent, and since paths are choice-dependent, the present was not historically determined. So if the present seems bad due to foolish choices in the past, policymakers may seek to understand how things would have been different by imagining a counterfactual: What if Gore had been president?

Foreign policy counterfactual reasoning is a tool for relating to history in a way that helps us not only to see things differently but, hopefully, to be able to make wiser judgments in decision making. There is much more that could be said about this, particularly concerning the criteria used to keep counterfactual analysis from running away with itself. But hopefully I have now said enough about it, here, to consider the following example.

What if President Bush had not snubbed Iran in May 2003 but had taken the Iranians up on their formal diplomatic reachout? More specifically, how much is the snub implicated in the direction that the political hardliners in Tehran Iran took their nations diplomatically and internationally after the snub? It’s a critical question for two significant reasons. One, it bears upon the direction of Iran’s nuclear program since 2003. Two, entering negotiations about its nuclear program was a salient point in Iran’s proposal for talks with the U.S. in May 2003 – when Iran was much more open to negotiations about its nuclear program. Relevant to this is what took place in Iran after May 2003:

Inside Iran after the Bush snub:

  • Ultrafundamentalists politicians and religious leaders had the political propaganda they had been hoping for to successfully undermine President Khatami’s reformist domestic policies and his “dialogue of civilizations” foreign policy with the United States.
  • Iran’s rigidly ideological Council of Guardians, which vets all political candidates seeking elected office, increasingly disqualified moderates and reform-minded candidates for the presidency and for parliament (they number in the hundreds every election cycle).
  • Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC), a large branch of the military tasked with defending the Islamic republic from external and internal threats, expanded areas of its control, including  tightening its grip over many of the country’s economic sectors through multi-million dollar take-overs of key industries in Iran’s telecommunications and energy sectors. Today, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, the IRGC “presides over a vast power structure with influence over almost every aspect of Iranian life.”
  • dominoesIn June 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the ultrafundamentalist mayor of Tehran and former member of the IRGC’s infamous Basij militia, became president of Iran and, in controversial speeches, makes his radical religious-political views known to the world.
  • In the summer of 2006, Iran is implicated in supplying military support, and in green-lighting, Hezbollah in the Israel – Hezbollah war fought in southern Lebanon.
  • With the Council of Guardians disqualifying candidates en masse for political office, the ballots are stacked with fundamentalists and ultrafundamentlists, who win a huge majority of seats over reformists and moderates in the March 2008 parliamentary election.
  • Supreme leader Ali Khamenei, who has final say in all things political in Iran, sides with the hardliners in June 2009 and authorizes the Basji militia to use extreme measures against hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators in Tehran, who are protesting the suspected widespread vote rigging that saw Amadinejad reelected as president.
  • As organized protests continue to disrupt Ahmadinejad’s plans for a smoothly running government, the regime spends the second half of 2009 taking revenge on high-level moderates and reformist politicians and their supporters through bogus arrests and trials.

Iran’s nuclear program after the Bush snub:

  • The Iranian government intensified its cat and mouse game with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), shrouding the secrecy of its nuclear program with ever more riddles, while international appeals for Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment go unheeded.
  • Iran significantly reduced the IAEA’s inspection rights in 2006, opening paths to conduct nuclear activities in secret; it enriches uranium.
  • International tensions mount in 2006-2008, as both the United States and Israel think out loud about bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.
  • News surfaces in 2009 about a secret uranium enrichment site being built underground near the holy city of Qom.
  • Despite four rounds of economic sanctions passed by the UN Security Council between 2006 and 2010, Iran continues to stonewall IAEA inspectors and double down on its nuclear program.

I’ll stop there.

Conclusion. Iran’s thickly veiled nuclear program since the Bush snub is central to why I have been arguing that the May 2003 snub of Iran may yet go down as the worst foreign policy decision in the history of the United States.

Since 2003, more than a dozen serious diplomatic initiatives, proposals, and negotiations from Western nations, China, Russia, and others, including from Iran itself, have taken place, with varying results but with no comprehensive agreement as yet having been reached. (Here is a detailed history of the official negotiations.)

Success on the issue became more promising after President Obama removed the Bush administration’s precondition that Iran first suspend certain nuclear work before the U.S. would enter talks about Iran’s nuclear program. At the time of this writing, detailed and very technical negotiations to reach a comprehensive solution are taking place in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 nations (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), as yet another deadline for reaching an agreement, November 24, approaches. The deadline may be extended. Who knows?

What is known is that the United States, the EU, Russia, China, and many other nations are not willing to take Ayatollah Khamenei at his word when, in February 2012, he said in a major foreign policy speech: “The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons … because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin.” What is also known is that no one really knows if the United States or Israel will bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities if negotiations collapse.

palm tree (cariberri)In the spring of 2003, the George W. Bush White House was flying high. It had ridden the crest of its swift victory in Afghanistan into Iraq, and on May 1, after less than a month of the U.S.-led war on Iraq, a large red, white, and blue banner that read “Mission Accomplished” hung unashamedly on the USS Abraham Lincoln as President Bush landed on the flight deck. It signaled to all the world America’s precise, speedy, and bold defeat of the largest military in the Middle East, while President Bush gave a nationally televised speech under the banner.

 

Also in the spring of 2003, as a net result of Bush’s year and a half of wars in the Middle East, Washington found itself breathing the air most envied by many world capitals: extraordinary diplomatic negotiating power with capitals of the Muslim Middle East. In that atmosphere of diplomatic advantage, it was foolish for the Bush White House not to ride those winds into negotiations with Iran.

Today, after eight years of Ahmadinejad, Iran has another moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, whose cabinet includes a number of people from the reform-minded Khatami administration of 1997-2005. And the United States is deeply engaged in the nuclear talks with Iran. We do not want to see another decision, like the Bush snub, that can be used by the hardliners in Iranian regime as another “told you so” moment that provides political ammunition to destroy the Rouhani presidency and bring the ultrafundamentalist to power again.

If you can do nothing else, pray that the talks succeed. It may indeed take the wisdom of Solomon for them to succeed. If they fail, the United States or Israel may bomb Iran. If that occurs, it is likely to result in the Iranian government’s immediate marginalization of Rouhani and a protracted retaliation from Iran to the bombing that includes increased terrorism; greater instability in Iraq and Syria; disruption in oil distribution; military conflict between Shiite Persian Iran and some Sunni Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia; and many other terrible consequences, not to mention an Iran more determined than ever to become a nuclear weapons power.

Iranian retaliation and Western response might even lead to an escalation that draws in China and Russia, who are allies of Iran, on the side of Iran into a fullblown U.S. – Iran war. In short, a bombing campaign and Iran’s retaliation may result conditions that will make everyone rue the day.

Equally disturbing is the fact that even if the nuclear negotiations succeed in keeping Iran from going for the bomb, Iran will nevertheless have reached the threshold of becoming a nuclear weapons power. And that may be incentive enough for nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, if other Muslim countries set in motion their own threshold programs as a balance of power strategy to Iran. Iran then might decide to cross the threshold first, because it can do so in a short space of time. Then chances for a nuclear war increase.

This counterfactual analysis does not place the blame for the current Iranian nuclear dilemma on the Bush snub alone, for a host of national interests, regional strategies, and international maneuvers are also in play. It does, however, cry out for us to learn in an exceptional way from history why diplomacy is better than adversarial relations and war. And that can help us imagine a wiser way ahead today.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Dominoes image by Great Beyond, palm tree image by cariberri (permissions via Creative Commons)

THE BATTLE OF THE BUSH GIANTS OVER IRAN part 2 of 2

Continued from previous post.

Khatami & co, (andresmh)President Khatami of Iran, his foreign ministry, and other high-level reformists in his government had stuck their necks out since 1997 reaching out to the United States and it had been paying off for both nations. Hardline ultrafundmentalists inside the Iranian regime, however, were no fans of Khatami’s foreign policy, which was based on his dialogue of civilizations. Nor were they fans of his reformist domestic policies. The regime’s ideological hardliners fought against Khatami’s pragmatism inside Iran not only via political means but also by oppressing numerous dissidents and intellectuals who supported the president’s domestic reforms. Despite the strong opposition of regime hardliners to his foreign policy with the U.S., Khatami remained steadfast about bringing Iran out of the cold with America. To this, the hardliners acquiesced, biding their time. That time had now come.

From October 2001 to January 2002, Iran had proven itself to be a crucial ally with the U.S. in its war in Afghanistan and the forming of the new Afghan government. Khatami had been preaching to the hardliners inside the Iranian regime that Iran’s support of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan would reap U.S. rewards.

But then, incredibly, President George W. Bush included Iran, with Iraq and North Korea, in his “axis of evil” speech in January 2002. Khatami’s credibility inside the regime immediately tanked. Intentionally or not, the Bush White House handed the hardline ideologues inside the regime the political ammunition they needed to kill Khatami’s foreign policy with the U.S. Demonizing Iran as part of an “axis of evil” became a huge propaganda coup for the hardliners. It appeared that Iran was being hung out to dry by the Americans. The hardliners argued that the Bush administration had merely used Khatami and his reformist advisers.

But bilateral relations, especially between adversaries, are never straightforward, and they become even complicated when a major event, like war, takes place that affects the strategic interests of those nations. Then, you never quite know who is going to decide what or where the relations are headed. And so just when you think events have reached such a pitch that the hardliners inside the White House and inside the Iranian regime can congratulate themselves on defeating the diplomats, no. By late 2002, with the invasion of Iraq appearing increasingly imminent, neither Washington nor Tehran could afford to stop talking to each other. With the looming war, cooperation between the two parties had become too valuable to end.

Hubris book coverIran had at first opposed toppling Saddam Hussein, preferring the regional Iran – Iraq status quo to a pro-Western client government along its border. But when Tehran understood that the Bush administration was set on war with Iraq, it began using the Geneva Channel and other diplomatic tracks to quietly assist U.S. plans in ways that would benefit Iranian interests. Through such help, for instance, Iran would gain at least some degree of insight into what the Americans were going to be doing in Iraq.

But there were perks for Washington, too. Tehran, for instance, held valuable cards, such as its familiarity with Iraq’s leading Shia clerics and the country’s complex Shiite tribal networks. Also, Iran’s intelligence network would have information helpful to the U.S. military once it was in Iraq. Trita Parsi, in Treacherous Alliance, writes that although the Geneva – Paris talks by 2003 “lacked the cooperative spirit they enjoyed during the Afghan war,” they continued out of mutual necessity, focusing on Iraq, until the crude snub of Iran in May 2003 by the Bush White House. With that, the cabal of Cheney–Rumsfeld–Wolfowitz had finally succeeded in killing off the Powell diplomatic strategy with Iran.

I argued for many weeks on this blog, beginning here, about why wisdom and diplomacy are vital for easing adversarial international relations to prevent conflict or war. The Bush snub of Iran in May 2003, in its rejection of entering high-level diplomatic talks with Iran,  was not wise. It was largely a result of neoconservative political ideology in the Bush White House and directly implicated in the steep deterioration of U.S. – Iran relations that ensued. We will look at why neoconservatism is implicated in this in a future post.

But there was also a lack of wisdom in the Iranian regime’s response to the Bush snub, both in its domestic policies, which to this day have been terribly costly to the Iranian people, and in its relations with the West, which in recent years have been walking a knife-like edge. In the next post I want us to look at what took place politically in Iran after the snub, as the ultrafundmentalists in the regime, through elections and policies, ensured that Iran took a strong adversarial stance toward the U.S. and greatly re-energized its nuclear program.

This quick historical view will give us important insights into why the U.S., even today, retains its “all options are on the table” (war) policy toward Iran. It also gives us insight into why, if there is war with Iran, the Bush snub may yet go down in history as the worst foreign policy decision in the history of the United States.

<em>©2014 by Charles Strohmer</em>

Image by andresmh (permission via Creative Commons)