Thursday, September 26, 2013

2 Presidents and 3 diplomatic delusions regarding Iran

Few agendas are as necessary or as noble as the advancement of global peace. After all, a just peace represents the merging of morality and unified political interest.

But peace isn’t easy.

For a start, it requires the honest appraisal of realities in the moment, not the appraisal of realities as we would wish them to be. The distinction is important – diplomatic delusion feeds political dysfunction. History is littered with bloody testimony to the dear costs of wishful thinking.

Regrettably, regarding Iran, I fear that US delusion is back in town.

1)      Delusions regarding the Iranian leadership

It’s no secret that President Rouhani lacks ultimate power over his country’s policies - that authority flows from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Nonetheless, western excitement over Rouhani’s supposed d├ętente has encouraged the belief that a nuclear deal is near. The new implication – Rouhani wants peace, Obama wants peace and thus peace will become reality.

There’s a problem here.

Not only does Rouhani lack decisive power in Iran’s political system, his power is inherently limited by the governing essence of the Iranian theocracy. In Iran, the underpinning of political authority has a central source - the ‘Guardianship of the Jurist.’ Conveniently codified by the Ayatollah Khomeini, this doctrine enshrines absolute power in Iran’s Supreme Leader. Absolute is the operative word here. In comparative terms, this guardianship is Iran’s opposite to the European royalist ‘divine right of kings’ – one leader proffering the ordained will of God on Earth.

In other words, Khamenei is the key.

So follows the question- does the Supreme Leader want a deal?

Some say yes. David Ignatius (a top analyst plugged into the US Intelligence Community) suggests that Khamenei's willing to give serious peace a go.

 I'm not so sure.

Political rule 101 - always review the historical record in preference to the campaign speech. At a basic level, Khamenei is no friend of peace – his power resides upon the bodies of the Iranian people. The Supreme Leader cannot be trusted. Moreover, studying Khamenei's statements and those of the men who sit close to his throne, it’s abundantly clear that America isn't regarded as a prospective partner (an understanding on which a successful nuclear deal would depend). Consider the words of the Chairman of Iran’s powerful Guardian Council, Ayatollah Jannati:

At the end of the day, we are an anti-American regime. America is our enemy, and we are the enemies of America. The hostility between us is not a personal matter. It is a matter of principle. We are in disagreement over the very principles that underlie our revolution and our Islam.’’

Men like Khamenei, Jannati and their ideological spawn (think Qassem Soleimani) are principled enemies of the United States. They don’t want our friendship. They want us gone from the region. It’s crucial that we grapple with this reality. At best, Rouhani is a well-intentioned Secretary of State style figure. But divorced from real power, his words are words alone.

2)      Delusions regarding Iran’s nuclear intentions

Iran’s leaders like to claim that their nuclear pursuit is peaceful – as Rouhani argued at the UN: it’s all about societal advancement (an assertion that would be more believable if the regime weren't so desperate to control information flows). Yet, this isn’t about society. It’s about power. And not the energy supply kind. Rather, Iran’s leaders believe that the day they come into possession of a nuclear weapon, will be the moment that they guarantee the survival of their regional revolutionary project (this judgment having been reinforced by perceptions of Assad's WMD enabled survival). As a corollary, when we pretend otherwise; that somehow Iran’s nuclear ambitions are on the bargaining table of standard diplomacy, we guarantee one of two outcomes. Either an Israeli strike against Iran, or eventually, a nuclear armed Iran.

Instead, if we’re to avoid a nuclear Iran, we must first take stock of the importance that the theocrats place in their nuclear endeavor. Normal diplomacy just isn’t going to cut it. We’re going to need to up the ante; offering Iran a peaceful low-enrichment program with one hand and tougher sanctions/the credible threat of military force with the other.

Put simply, Khamenei must come to realize that the price of nuclear weapons will be too heavy to bear.

3)      Delusions regarding US-Iranian ‘mutual interests'

In his speech to the UN, President Obama stated the following:

 ‘’I don’t believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight – the suspicion runs too deep. But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road toward a different relationship – one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.­­­’’

I’d love to know what ‘mutual interests’ the President is talking about.

Apart from what’s now effectively an indirect alliance in Syria, across the world, US and Iranian interests stand in starkest opposition. Just a few examples…

The US supports Lebanese democracy; Iran supports a Hizballah hegemony.

The US operates a robust network of alliances with the Sunni Arab kingdoms; Iran regards those governments with an overt and active hatred. (Admittedly the Arab monarchies aren't huge fans of Iran.)

The US opposes North Korean nuclear proliferation; Iran stands in alliance with the Stalinist kingdom.

The US seeks an Iraqi government independent of malevolent influence; Iran supports militias in furtherance of its agenda in both Iraq and Syria.

The US pursues a semi-stable democracy in Afghanistan; Iran supplies the Taliban.

The US confronts those who slaughter civilians; Iran embraces terrorism with zeal.

These are the facts. We ignore this reality at our peril.

                     Don’t get me wrong. These three delusions are not to say that diplomacy with Iran is pointless. In fact, because of the scale of these problems, effective diplomacy is of pivotal importance.

That's my point - our diplomacy must be level headed.

Preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon will require far more than wishful thinking and a sprinkling of pleasant words - that path is plainly redundant. If Iran is to change course, it won’t be because of Obama's outreach (new centrifuges indicate that they’re quite happy with their current road to Damascus), it will be because their nuclear road is blocked by American resolve.

The appropriate US strategy is a simple one – to empower our East River dialogue with New York bluntness – speaking to Khamenei in terms he will easily understand. America must offer the Ayatollah two choices- peace by verified disarmament, or tougher sanctions backed up by the certain threat of US military power.

To those who call me a warmonger for this post - that Rouhani deserves our easy trust and flexibility, I have a simple rebuttal. In his speech yesterday, President Rouhani claimed that Iran defends ''.... peace based on democracy and the ballot box everywhere.. and believe[s] that there are no violent solutions to world crises.''

If you believe that, you'll believe anything.

Links to my other related writings

1 comment:

  1. Just a thought, but the avoidance of another war and a repeat of Iraq seems like a pretty solid mutual interest. Obviously the situations of Iraq and Iran are extremely different, but I still think the comparison is somewhat plausible, mainly going into a country guns blazing without any sort of long term plan or foresight on international backlash. Also consider the fact that the current regime in Iran has a history of self preservation. So keeping itself afloat, even if their needs to be a change in political institutions, seems to be their primary goal.