Friday, September 20, 2013

Iran, the US and the UN - A skeptical take

It appears that President Obama is to meet with President Rouhani of Iran. The reason for the meeting is simple - the White House believes that Rouhani's election offers a renewed prospect for peace.

As Obama put it,

''I think this new president [Rouhani] is not going to suddenly make it easy. But, you know, my view is that if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort, that, in fact, you can strike a deal."

I believe that the President is overly optimistic.

First, post-Syria, US credibility regarding the potential use of military force has been evaporated. Second, Iran's Supreme Leader, Khamenei, holds the cards when it comes to the nuclear game. Third, see below... a re-post of my piece from a month back on Iran's diplomatic strategy.

         ‘’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.

Nevertheless, 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. (UPDATE_ He also apparently believes that the Holocaust is a myth). 

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 we’ve seen repeated 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 other clips on Iran are below.

Syria repercussions (The Guardian)

Iran plans retaliation if US strikes Assad (Blog)

The geo-strategic impact of Iran attaining a nuclear weapons capability (The Commentator)

How domestic politics influences Iranian, US and Israeli foreign policy (Blog)

How Iran will use brinkmanship to protect its nuclear program (The Guardian)

Israel could attack Iran without causing a major war in the region (The Guardian)

Iran and Diplomacy (Blog)

Strategic interplay in the Near/Middle East (The Daily Caller)

Netanyahu at the UN (Blog)

1 comment:

  1. I'm all for dialogue, but dialogue should be predicated on clear understandings of what the end game should be. In the case of Iran, that end game should be the abandonment of nuclear weapons. If Iran wants nuclear power for peaceful uses, it has to submit to inspection and buy fuel rods and not enrich its own. Iran also needs to clean up its human rights record and halt the barbaric practice of public hangings, as well as reopen dissident news media and release political and religious prisoners. Iran also needs to halt its foreign adventures in supporting terror groups and smuggling arms in places like Syria. Dialogue is great, but it means to be meaningful, otherwise it's like North Korea; a delaying tactic or bargaining chip. Iran has too long a history of saying one thing and doing another and Rouhani is as practiced at it as anyone. You can see it for yourself at Only regime change is going to really change Iran