The U.S. and Iran at War?

choicesIn May, President Donald Trump pulled United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. In June, he met with North Korean leader Kim Jong UN in Singapore to start denuclearization negotiations with the secretive regime. It is hard to square these two historic yet contradictory foreign policy events unless a war with Iran is in the cards. And it may be.

Formal talks with North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapons is a wise move, even if realizing that goal will test the diplomatic skill of both sides as well as everyone’s patience. The dueling statements after the recent sit-down between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean diplomats are probably indicative of disturbing disconnects to come. Pompeo called the meeting “productive,” adding that “progress had been made.” But “regrettable,” “really disappointing,” and “gangster-like” was the language of the North Korean foreign ministry.

This should not surprise. Tetchy diplomatic exchanges occurred regularly between negotiators when hammering out the JCPOA. But it is smarter for adversarial states to keep talking to work out their differences. If they do not, they will grow increasingly adversarial by not talking to each other. Yet that is road President Trump has taken America on with Iran by exiting out of the JCPOA. It would have been wiser for the President to task the State Department to springboard off the JCPOA to seek through negotiations to try to resolve areas of critical concern between Washington and Tehran that were not within the nuclear deal’s purview. Such talks may not have been any easier in getting to Yes than they were with the JCPOA. But getting to Yes is wiser than going to war. And war it may now be.

History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. In October, 1998, regime change in Iraq became official policy of the United States, through a bill that sailed through Congress and was signed into law by President Clinton on October 31 as “The Iraq Liberation Act.” Voila! In the spring of 2003, “Mission Accomplished.” Not.

The U.S. has no official policy toward Iran equivalent to The Iraq Liberation Act, but in 1953 the CIA and MI6 worked together to change the regime in Iran. Sixty-five years later, is this the Trump administration’s unofficial-official policy?

Within two weeks of pulling America out of the JCPOA, President Trump appointed John Bolton, a former U. S. Ambassador to the UN, as his new National Security Advisor. Bolton, a strong and vocal advocate of regime change in Iran, wrote in the New York Times in 2015 that bombing Iran is the only way to stop the development of its nuclear program. “Such action should be … aimed at regime change in Tehran,” he concluded.

In a telling National Review article (August, 2017) titled “How to Get Out of the Iran Deal,” Bolton laid out a detailed, five-page game plan for the kind of spin the White House could use to do that. Bolton, has who called the Iran nuclear deal “execrable,” had been asked in July 2017, by Steve Bannon, then Trump’s chief White House strategist, “to draw up just such a game plan…, which I did,” Bolton wrote in the National Review article. It’s a strategy, he states, “that can be readily expanded to a comprehensive, hundred-page playbook if the administration were to decide to leave the Iran agreement.”

Note the meaning of that carefully crafted sentence. Bolton, who has served at high levels in various presidential administrations, is not saying: here is a just case for pulling out of the agreement. He’s saying: if you [Trump] pull out when Iran is not in material breach, here’s how to spin your decision.

Also strongly critical of Iran is Mike Pompeo. In September, 2015, when he was a Congressman (from Kansas), Pompeo addressed the Heritage Foundation think tank with a topic titled, “A Pathway Forward: An Alternative to the Flawed Iran Nuclear Deal.” On April 26, 2018, four weeks after assuming the office of Secretary of State, and two weeks after President Trump terminated U.S. participation in the JCPOA, Pompeo was warmly welcomed back at the Heritage Foundation, where his topic, “After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy,” includes a string of twelve non-negotiable demands to Tehran, which, if you were that regime, you would see as prelude-to-war talk if all the demands are not met.

Also in the stacked deck are the years of secret talks taking place between the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister. The goal of these no-longer-secret talks was to form a solid coalition with other Arab Gulf states to combat Iran. That goal was partly held in check for eight years by the foreign policy of the Obama White House. With Donald Trump in the Oval Office that Middle East military alliance against Iran has been strengthened by the Trump family’s long-term friendship with Netanyahu, his withdrawal of America from the JCPOA, and the results of his first official foreign trip, in May 2017, to Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Changing the regime in Iran may not be the only way to square talking to Marshal Un’s regime while refusing to talk to Tehran, but it has an ominous historical rhyme to 1998-2003. As then, today there are many hawks in Congress, and in think tanks and the news media, and influential editorialists, who would support regime change in Iran backed by the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East. Iran would fight it tooth and nail, which could easily lead to direct U.S. military involvement.

And just today, July 23, we awoke to President Trump’s ominous all-caps tweet to Iran’s President Rouhani, “NEVER EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE…”. This was in response to what President Rouhani is reported to have said on June 22, at a gathering of Iranian diplomats: “American should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars.”

Of course, well known is the long list of Iranian policies and actions in the Middle East that are of critical concern to the U.S., its Middle East allies, and Europe. As far back as the spring of 2003, Tehran itself, with the ayatollah’s imprimatur, formally reached out to the Bush administration to start talks about these issues, which included its nuclear program, cooperation with the U.S. on al Qaeda, leaning on Hezbollah, accepting the Arab League’s Beirut Declaration for a two-state solution, and ending Iranian material support to groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Team Bush was riding high just then, after the U.S. military toppled Saddam Hussein’s government in a short war, so it would have been an opportune time for talks with Tehran to begin. But in an irrational move that puzzled some of his political allies, President Bush snubbed Iran’s formal diplomatic reach out, and the magnitude to alter U.S. – Iran relations for the better was lost.

The harsh snub gave the hard-line politicians in Tehran opportunity to make Iran’s then President Mohammad Khatami (an Iranian moderate who had been promoting a dialogue of civilizations) look so foolish in Iran that radical hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected President in 2005. It wasn’t until another Iranian moderate, Hassan Rouhani, was elected President in 2013, that Tehran got serious again about negotiating with the U.S. about its nuclear program. And it took an American President who was willing and able to do that. What will be the consequences of President Trump’s unwillingness to start talks with Tehran without first making absolute demands of the regime?

Diplomacy and negotiations is not a one-way street. The JCPOA is a flawed agreement (is there any perfect international agreement?), but it was a start, and it left the door open for hammering out a less-flawed nuclear deal, perhaps even a treaty. The JCPOA was also indicative that Tehran, with the ayatollah’s support, was willing to talk about other matters of critical concern. For the U.S. to enter into such talks is not a sign of weakness. Whatever good things could have come out of such talks now seems to have disappeared down the drain.

A war with Iran would likely begin between Iran and Saudi Arabia with its Gulf State allies, who will have intelligence and possibly material help from Israel. Such a war could draw in Israel directly. At that point, and depending on how Israel fared, Israel could, even if as a last resort, ask for direct U.S. intervention in Iran. If so, it seems unlikely that the U.S. would deny its closest Middle East ally a direct war between the U.S. and Iran.

But consider an alternative scenario. On June 8, in its most recent report to the UN, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which spend upwards of 3,000 calendar days a year in Iran sustaining the toughest of inspections, stated that Iran is complying with its commitments. This is also the conclusion, to date, of all other signatories (except the U.S.) to the JCPOA – China, France, Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom, the European Union.

War is not a wise way to solve international disagreements. Talking openly and honestly with Iran to bring that nation further out of the cold is the wiser policy. In the words of the late Israeli military leader turned politician Moshe Dayan: if you want to make peace, you don’t need to talk to you friends; you talk to your enemies.

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Images: permissions via Creative Commons.

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Understanding the Religious–Secular Dilemma of U.S.–Middle East Relations, part 3 of 4

Islam at night 2In part one and part two of this article we looked at the strong influence of secularism on the history of the foreign policy establishment of the United States. But Washington’s relations with the capitals of the Muslim Middle East is not a one-way street. In this post I want to offer an overview of the strong, yet varied, influence of religion in the capitals of the Middle East. This affects their international relations, and some insight into it is crucial for understanding the secular – religious dilemma of U.S. – Mideast relations.

Religion and the Secular:
The Foremost International Dilemma
of U.S.-Middle East Relations
by Charles Strohmer

U.S.– Mideast relations run both ways. Whereas Washington approaches the Middle East from a secularized orientation, the capitals of the Muslim Middle East rely on varying degrees of explicit religious belief, depending on the country in question. In other words, although everyone knows that Islam is that religion, it less commonly understood that there is no universal agreement in the Muslim world how each government should express Islam politically.

Saudi Arabia, for instance, is a monarchy based on Islamic law (shari’a) as it is interpreted and applied through the powerfully influential and well-instituted Wahhabi Sunni branch of Islam. In Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism controls and runs mosques, schools, and clerics, and preaches and enforces a strict Islamic fundamentalism that strongly influences all of areas life. This strict kind of Islam, for instance, has made constructing churches and synagogues in the country illegal.

Like Saudi Arabia, Sunni Islam is by far the most dominant religion in Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon. But note some crucial differences. In Jordan, a monarchy, Islam is the state religion but, opposite of Saudi Arabia, Jordan is tolerant of non-Islamic religions. Egypt is an Arab republic (not a monarchy), with Islam as the state religion, and the country has significant Christian minorities in the Coptics and Roman Catholics. In Lebanon, the Arab country with the largest percentage of Christians, a unique political system is designed so that more that a dozen different religious groups, mainly Muslim and Christian, are structurally factored into the national government. “Parliamentary seats, ministries, governments jobs, and so on are apportioned according to these different confessional groups. So the political process formally recognizes these religious groups, that each one should have a share in the pie.”

Iran is different still. It is not a monarchy and Shia Islam is dominant, and for most of the mid-twentieth century, the government of Iran was secularized and practiced, in part, separation of mosque and state. Today, Iran a theocracy, constitutionally identified as an Islamic republic. The secularization of the government ended 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in 1979 (he overthrew the country’s American-backed Shah). The contemporary determinacy between the religion of Islam and the politics of Iran dates back to the time. A religious Supreme Leader has since then been the head of the government (first Khomeini, now Ayatollah Ali Khamenei).

Besides the Supreme Leader, a twelve member Guardian Council, comprised of six jurists and six religious clerics (all must be highly-educated, dedicated Shia Muslims), oversees parliament. The Council can veto any piece of legislation that it deems to violate Islamic law (shari’a) or the Iranian constitution. The Council approves or disqualifies candidates wishing to run for any election. One of the more alarming ramifications of this for Western powers has been when Council at times disqualified nearly all reformist candidates who were seeking to run for political office, either for seats in parliament or for the presidency.

In this religious–political mix of government the Supreme Leader is thought by Iran’s ruling clerics to be God’s representative on Earth, in the sense of being directly answerable to God, and therefore not as susceptible to public opinion as are Iran’s president and members of parliament.  He is not elected by the public but selected by the Assembly of Experts. Under him is the president, who is elected by the people, and a parliament, also comprised of elected officials. Also, the Supreme Leader has been invested in the legal structure of the Islamic Republic with ultimate political authority. He has the final word on all matters of state, including foreign policy.

Iraqi girl at windowIraq is different still. Iraq’s system of government is constitutionally republican, representative, parliamentary, and democratic. Its constitution makes Islam the official religion of the state and “a foundation source of legislation” that “guarantees the full religious rights to freedom of religious belief and practice of all individuals such as Christians, Yazidis, and Mandean Sabeans.” Shias outnumber Sunnis in Iraq, but under the dictator Saddam Hussein, the secular Baathist Party, largely Sunni, ruled. After Saddam Hussein’s fall from power in 2003, a predominantly Shia government has ruled Iraq.

Syria is an Arab republic in which Islamic jurisprudence, as stated in its constitution, is “a major source of legislation. The State shall respect all religions, and ensure the freedom to perform all the rituals that do not prejudice public order. The personal status of religious communities shall be protected and respected.” The Sunni Baath Party controls every facet of Syria, including its military, even during the current horrific civil – religious war.

There are, of course, other Muslim countries in the Middle East. I have only noted some basic, mainly constitutional, religious features of the foregoing seven countries to indicate their governments’ different understanding of how Islam should be expressed politically. It is crucial to understand that there does not exist a single governmental pattern of Islam operating everywhere in the Middle East. This means that Washington cannot have, thus it does not have, a one-size-fits-all foreign policy for the Muslim Middle East. That is impossible.

Yet it is not unusual to find U.S. citizens talking as if “they’re all the same over there.” No, they are not. Foreign policy decision making for a secularly institutionalized White House and Congress in the political–religious diversity of the Muslim Middle East is complicated and challenging. The U.S. has diverse policies for these states.

In the Muslim Middle East, the official conjunction of religion and the state, often called political Islam, seems like a bad marriage to most Americans. In the Muslim world, the alliance is generally considered a good marriage (perhaps it is better to think in the plural, here, “marriages,” since there is no single way in which state politics and religion are wed in that region).

The governments of Muslim majority countries face complicated and challenging decisions. They struggle, for instance, each in its own way, with issues such as democracy, modernization, and globalization vis a vis what (they determine) faithfulness to Islam requires of them in such areas. One of the current crucial international decisions they grapple with is how much cooperation they ought to give to Western powers in dealing with ISIS (a radical Sunni organization). In this, the division between Sunni and Shia governments in the region has played a crucial role in influencing foreign policy. That is, just as Washington engages differently with the various capitals of the Middle East, the various capitals of the Middle East have different policies toward ISIS, and their interpretations of Islam plays a large role in this. Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, for instance, have dissimilar policies toward ISIS.

One thing that does unite the varied religious expression of Islam is that they all face a common problem in the institutionalized, secular reductivism that controls the international relations of America and the rest of the West. This does not mean, however, that when, say, Iran’s foreign minister meets his American counterpart that the former talks like a theologian. He talks to his American counterpart, and seeks agreements, in the language of politics. But he will come to the table knowing that an explicit religious environment hovers over his head nearby.

Countries of the Muslim Middle East, then, face the equal opposite problem to that of the United States. Because their political governances formally recognize religious interests, albeit in varying capacities and with different theological interpretations of Islam, each one must contend from its religious point of view with how its relations should, or should not, develop with the United States, where religious authority is excluded from playing any official role.

Despite ongoing, serious attempts to solve it, the nub issue remains: finding peaceable and just ways to negotiate the secular – religious intersection of U.S. – Mideast relations. Part four of this article will look at ways in which the United States has in recent decades faced challenges at this crucial intersection, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much.

FOOTNOTES

[1] “The Christian Message in Lebanon,” Christianity Today, Aug. 2007, journalist Rami Khouri interviewed by Charles Strohmer

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Top image by Wajahat Mahmood; other image by dvidshub (permissions via Creative Commons).

Invitation to Summer Reading

summer reading wisdomNOTE: While I’m blogging less frequently this summer in order to finish some writing projects that are screaming at me from the wings, I want to invite you to read, or perhaps revisit, some key past posts. I’ve picked several (see the list below) that seem to have become increasingly relevant over the past year. But of course you can simply pick topics from the Categories list in the sidebar.

And while I’m at it, I want to express a sincere “Thank you” to all of you who are following this blog, as well as to those of you who stop by here occasionally to check out a post. I have tried to make this an open and safe (and nonpartisan and commercial free!) space for sharing, commenting on, and spreading wisdom-based ideas and practices that are vital for our times but, sadly, ignored by the media. You are helping to “get the word out” – by raising awareness that our deepening reliance on wisdom enables us to work cooperatively and peaceably together in areas of private or public activity – where diversity is normative, where cooperation is essential, and where human flourishing is desired, but where adversarial relations or lesser tensions first have to be defused and resolved.

As Ringo once sang, “You know it don’t come easy.” But sharing about wisdom with you and hearing from you is its own reward. So maybe I could do a little friendly arm-twisting. Since this blog is still catching on, and experimental as well, consider taking a minute to turn friends and colleagues on to the blog via email and social media. And if you have suggestions for improving the blog it, I’m all ears. Thank you.

Here is my personal list of posts you may want to earmark for your summer reading or rereading, topics that seem to have become increasingly relevant to our times. The comment areas are open on all of the posts, so feel free to join in:

What You Now Need to Know about ISIS – This link will take you to a short post that will save you a lot of time. It’s a brief summary that lists places on this blog to jump to that may scratch your itches about why ISIS is like it is. These issues are ignored by the media, such as its historical and relational roots in 1960’s Egypt and its religious “submit or die” ideology.

Series on Iran – You will become well versed about historical and political causes of the deeply troubled relations between Iran and the U.S. And not just about the nuclear deal.

The Wisdom of the Desert  – This three-part series looks theologically, and a bit humorously, at the fascinating biblical story of Moses and Jethro in order to discover the vital role that wisdom played in the difficult formation of a just and peaceable society for the million-plus wanderers (Israelites, Egyptians, and others) of the Exodus generation. Discover the relevance of wisdom, justice, and peace for today’s pluralist societies.

Symphonic Justice – Some wonderfully creative thoughts from James Skillen about the the potential for more peaceable international relations.

Jesus As a Teacher of Wisdom in Ancient Palestine – The last shall be first. A series of seven posts. I have linked you to the third one in the series here.

Enjoy your summer.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Image by KimManleyOrt (permission via Creative Commons)

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)

THE BATTLE OF THE BUSH GIANTS OVER IRAN part 1 of 2

town at nightIn the previous two posts we looked at the fascinating yet fairly secretive years of gingerly cooperation between the United States and Iran that began in 1997 and ended abruptly in 2003. Much of this history remains unknown to most Americans, including how in 2001 Colin Powell, as George W. Bush’s Secretary of State, sought and got Iran’s tactical help to work with the CIA, the U.S. military, and the Northern Alliance to oust al Qaeda and the Taliban from Afghanistan.

If you were the president of the United States, wouldn’t you to try to keep building on that cooperation? After all, President Khatami of Iran had seriously proposed to do just that. But when Iran formally reached out to President Bush in May 2003 to do just that, President Bush crudely snubbed Iran. In this current series of posts, begun here, I am arguing why I believe that the snub could go down in history as the worst foreign policy decision in the history of the United States. It was a needless decision, the outcome of a battle of giants over Iran that had been brewing inside the Bush White House since 9/11.

The evening of September 11, 2001, Secretary Powell and a team of his closest advisors worked through the night to produce a diplomatic strategy for Afghanistan, which became instrumental in getting Iran’s tactical help in Afghanistan to go after Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and the Taliban. Beyond that tactical help, Powell wanted to persuade Iran to move into a positive strategic relationship with Washington.

Trita Parsi, in Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S., writes that Powell, Richard Armitage (Powell’s deputy), Larry Wilkerson (Powell’s chief of staff), and Ryan Crocker (a seasoned Middle East diplomat) had been working to build a proactive policy toward Iran, and they had incentive to push for a strategic opening with Iran after Iran’s tactical help in Afghanistan had paid off. But on Iran the Powell team faced ferocious opposition from Vice-president Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (a staunch neoconservative ideologue).

Flash forward to 2014.This year, President Obama has been chided from many quarters, including from his former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for what many are calling his “Don’t do stupid stuff” foreign policy. We can’t enter that discussion here, but I mention it because “Don’t do stupid foreign policy stuff” is an apt descriptor for what happened to Iran policy inside the Bush White House in 2002-2003.

Despite the successes of Powell’s diplomatic initiatives in getting get Iran’s help with Afghanistan after 9/11, President Bush began leaning increasingly on the advice about Iran from  Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz – all adamantly opposed to Powell’s push to get Iran into a strategic relationship with the United States. Bush himself would begin to scotch that possibility big time, when, in his January 2002 State of the Union address, he included Iran, with North Korea and Iraq, as part of his “axis of evil.”

Needless to say, the Iranians were shocked. In his book Confronting Iran, Ali Ansari writes that “few Iranians could reconcile themselves with the notion that they belonged in the same category as their old foe Saddam Hussein or the totalitarian regime in North Korea.” And what then took place inside the Iranian government ensured the break in relations. For there was a battle of political giants playing out in Tehran just as there was in the Bush White House. And, just as occurred in the White House, the diplomats in Tehran lost to the hardliners.

We’ll pick the story up there in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Olgierd Pstrykotworca (permission via Creative Commons)

IRAN & THE U.S., THE SECRET YEARS OF DIALOGUE & COOPERATION part 2 of 2

doorway to autumnConcurrent with the mutual charm offensive from 1997-2003 between Washington and Tehran was the fascinating period of the so-called Six plus Two talks. Tentatively begun by the UN in 1997, Iran, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, plus the United States and Russia, were quietly meeting to discuss dealing with the Taliban’s solidification of power over Afghanistan and the increasing violence among warring factions in that country. As well, Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network had recently been given safe haven there by the Taliban and were now working in various capacities with the Taliban government.

None of this bodes well for Shiite Muslim Iran. The al Qaeda network and the Taliban movement are radical Sunni Muslim Islamists, which meant that Iran had a deep stake in the Six plus Two talks. In 1998, Iran nearly went to war with the Taliban, and more than one million Afghan refugees had fled Taliban rule and were in the safekeeping of Iran, which has a very long eastern border with Afghanistan.

Iran helps the U.S. The Iran – U.S. narrative now begins to sound like a John LeCarré novel. After 9/11, Iran, in definitive ways through its considerable resources, began helping the CIA and the U.S. military to oust al Qaeda and the Taliban from Afghanistan. Iran was a major supporter of the Northern Alliance (NA), a motley group of anti-Taliban forces who were already at war with the Taliban, and through Iran’s help the NA now became the chief U.S. ally in Afghanistan against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Iran also agreed to allow any U.S. pilots who were in distress to land on Iranian soil, if necessary, and it agreed to allow the U.S. to perform search-and-rescue missions for downed American pilots on its soil. Iran also increased its troop strength along the long Iran – Afghanistan border and, according to Trita Parsi, it sent a dossier to UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan on hundreds of al Qaeda operatives Iran had detained (Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S.).

In October or November 2001, the Six plus Two forum had discreetly spun off one-on-one talks between Tehran and Washington to focus on closer cooperation about Afghanistan. Barbara Slavin (Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation) writes that more than a dozen secret meetings were held among a small, select group of high-level U.S. and Iranian diplomats (until the Bush administration rudely snubbed Iran in May 2003).

These secret meetings, Slavin writes, were cordial and professional and alternated between Geneva and Paris, often taking place in a hotel bar where the diplomats would chat over nonalcoholic drinks and potato chips. Parsi notes that the talks were dubbed the Geneva Channel and that the discussions were bilateral and at the highest level between officials of the two countries since the Iran-Contra scandal (mid-1980s). The talks included high-level Iranian diplomats and U.S. ambassadors Ryan Crocker and Zalmay Khalizad (both were senior Bush officials).

UN building (Jeffrey)Meanwhile, the Six plus Two group happened to be meeting at the UN in New York City just two months after 9/11, when American Airlines flight 587 crashed into a densely populated neighborhood in Queens shortly after taking off from JFK airport. Slavin writes that the assembled diplomats at first assumed another terrorist attack. She also reports that Karmal Kharrazi, Iran’s foreign minister, handwrote onto his prepared remarks the following words to a member of the U.S. delegation: “‘The United States should know that the Iranian people and the Iranian government stand with the United States in its time of need and absolutely condemn these violent terrorist attacks.’” Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, in New York City attending the annual UN General Assembly, told reporters that he hoped “this bitter event will be the last we will have, and that terrorism and hate will be replaced by coexistence, empathy, logic, and dialogue.”

Iran then proved to be crucial to the success of the Bonn Conference in December 2001, where, under UN auspices, an international delegation held meetings with prominent Afghan leaders to decide on a plan for governing Afghanistan, which had been without a nationally-agreed upon government since 1979. According to Parsi, Washington and Tehran had laid the groundwork for the conference weeks in advance, and at the conference it was the Iranian not the U.S. delegation which pointed out that the draft of the Bonn Declaration, which would create the new government, as yet contained no language on democracy. Slavin agrees that Iran played this key diplomatic role at the Bonn Conference, writing that Iran suggested that the draft communiqué call for democracy in Afghanistan and also declare that the new government should not harbor terrorists.

Parsi concluded that it was Iran’s influence over the Afghans, not America’s threats and promises, that moved the negotiations forward right up to the end of conference, when a crucial moment arose around a final sticking point with the NA about the high number of seats it should hold in the new government. Parsi writes that the issue seemed unresolvable and nearly scuttled reaching a final agreement until Iran’s lead negotiator, Javad Zarif, broke the deadlock by taking the NA delegate aside and whispering to him in Persian. A few minutes later they returned to the table, the NA inexplicably having agreed to give up two of the seats it wanted in the new government. (Zarif is currently Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs under President Rouhani.)

For Iran, its enemy the Taliban had been defeated. For the United States, its relations with Iran had become less adversarial. The two governments had demonstrated to each other how they could benefit from improved bilateral relations. Apparently the historic season of cooperation, ongoing since 1997 in various ways, was creating a thaw between the two adversaries. This did not go unnoticed at the Powell State Department, where it was hoped that the common interests that both countries had shared in Afghanistan could be continued and expanded to other areas. But that would soon be scuttled by the neoconservatives in the George W. Bush White House, despite Powell’s best efforts. We’ll take a look at that part of the history in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by raffacama & Jeffrey respectively (permission via Creative Commons)