Saturday, August 10, 2013

Iran’s new President and the continuing risk of conflict

‘’We should deal with the issue through a realistic approach."
Hassan Rouhani, August 6th 2013

The Obama Administration should take those words literally. After years of diplomatic failure, only a realistic approach can improve US-Iranian relations.

Yes, Rouhani is likely to be an improvement on his inauspicious predecessor (a clownish narcissist now locked in a desperate struggle for relevance). Iran’s new President has promised to improve women’s rights and seek better relations with the west. If nothing else, his tone is more conciliatory. These developments are, even if only prospective, good.

Nonetheless, enamored by the potential for change, many western commentators have reacted with unrestrained elation. Rouhani’s election has made ‘’imaginable what for years has been unimaginable.’’ said Stephen Kinzer in The Guardian.  In response, ‘’The Obama Administration should signal a shift in style, substance and strategy’’ declared Ali Vaez in the Christian Science Monitor.  Some went even further. In a particularly odd commentary for Al Jazeera, the academics, Flynt and Hillary Leverett found that Iran now offers a ‘’concrete expression’’ of Muslim democratic emancipation.

I think not.

Rouhani might not be Ahmadinejad, but that certainly doesn’t make him an Iranian Jefferson. After all, his existing human rights record isn’t exactly stellar. During the student protests of July 1999, Rouhani embraced a gleeful brutality - "From today’’ he warned‘’our people shall witness how… we deal with these opportunists and riotous elements, if they simply dare to show their faces."  He wasn’t joking. The students were crushed. It’s also been alleged that Rouhani played a key role in the use of terrorism against Iranian dissidents living abroad.

More concerning in the present however; the new President is a proud supporter both of Iran’s nuclear program and of continued assistance to the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad.

These facts should lead us to a cautious conclusion – a pleasant tone means nothing without substance.

Nowhere is this more true than with regards to the Iranian nuclear crisis.

While some analysts believe that Iran's present condition of international isolation and inflation make a nuclear deal likely, I'm not so sure. To me, that argument resides upon an intrinsically western conception of state interests; secular, populist and relative to the moment. Yes, Iran’s leaders obviously care about economics. Unfortunately, they care far more about joining the nuclear club. As I’ve argued before, the theocrats view nuclear power as the existential guarantor for their ongoing revolutionary project. This understanding explains why, again and again, we’ve seen nuclear negotiations rise in hope and then collapse in failure. Put simply, for the Ayatollahs, compared to the prospective feast of a nuclear dominion, western concessions are nothing. We think we have cake, but we only have crumbs.

Playing to our delusion, Iran adopts the foreign policy brother to Madoff’s Ponzi scheme- a negotiating strategy that uses trickery to buy time for nuclear advancement. The scam? Offer flirtations of peace, blame western intransigence for a negotiating failure, then, a few months later, start all over again. By allowing emotion to dominate our logic, we buy it every time.

Rouhani’s arrival allows Iran to play the same game with a fresh face.

It needn’t be this way. For all their bluster, Iran’s leaders understand that a military conflict with the United States would be a disaster for their interests. If we grasped this – we could, alongside stronger sanctions, perhaps deter them into ending their nuclear program. Unfortunately, emboldened by western impotence in Syria and Obama’s stuttering threats, American warnings bear little weight. For deterrence to be real it must first be believed.

There’s another political component at stake here- Israeli patience with diplomacy is nearly exhausted.

Following Rouhani’s election, Netanyahu again pressured the Obama Administration for tougher sanctions. I suspect that Israel’s Prime Minister fears Iran will use Rouhani the reformist to evade future sanctions. Nearly a year after Netanyahu’s ‘red line’ speech, it’s obvious that time is running out. In addition, though it's pure speculation on my part, Netanyahu's restoration of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process could indicate his desire to get President Obama 'on side' prior to an Israeli military attack on Iran.

Regardless, it's a dangerous wager to assume that Netanyahu’s warnings are a bluff. Israel’s security strategy resides upon Israel's regional supremacy of power. Where some cannot look beyond the risks of military conflict, Israelis (and the Sunni Arab monarchies) see a nuclear Iran as an intolerable threat.

In this sense, if Rouhani's style is divorced from substance, his arrival will provide little aid to the cause of peace.

My related writing.
France 24 analyst offers a different perspective.

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