Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Iran Gambit

Sixty-Four years ago today the Japanese obliterated the American Pacific Fleet with a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. One wonders how many Americans realize that today is also the 18th anniversary of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement signed by President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union’s Michael Gorbachev. I was a freshman at college at the time and watching the ceremony on television one could sense history turning a page. The President who only six years before referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” was dismantling the Cold War.

As readers of the Intrepid Liberal Journal might surmise, I was not a Reagan supporter. His reference to “state’s rights” in 1980 while campaigning in Philadelphia, Mississippi where four civil rights workers were murdered for registering blacks to vote offended me – yes even at the age of 11. I thought his emphasis on tax cuts for the rich at the expense of delivering services for the poor and disadvantaged was callous. I had a problem with his Central American policy that shamelessly permitted the CIA to torture nuns in El Salvador and allowed the Nicaraguan Contras to push cocaine in our cities. Finally, Reagan’s advocacy of breaking down the walls separating church and state scared me.

Nonetheless, President Reagan deserves the accolades of history for seizing the moment with Gorbachev. True, Gorbachev’s brave reforms made such an opportunity possible. It is easy to forget however that Reagan was equally courageous. His own party at the time was not enthusiastic about any rapprochement with Moscow. I remember how Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina helped sponsor a mailing to conservatives accusing Reagan of appeasement in 1988. The mailing contained pictures of Neville Chamberlain and Adolph Hitler on top and Reagan and Gorbachev underneath. I also recall how during the President’s State of the Union address in 1988, Democrats cheered while the Republicans sat on their hands when he referred to his diplomatic engagement with the Soviets.

It could not have been easy for the President to be so at odds with his party over détente. At the time President Reagan was on the ropes. The Iran-Contra scandal sapped his credibility and exposed Reagan’s lax management style and incurious intellect. House Speaker Jim Wright was increasingly assertive and Congress as a whole regarded him as a weak lame duck. His nominee to the Supreme Court – Robert Bork – ushered in an era of heightened partisanship regarding the make up of the judiciary. Reagan’s next nominee was forced to withdraw because of revelations that he smoked marijuana at Yale. On domestic policy he was no longer getting traction as the Washington elites shifted their focus to the ’88 Presidential election.

Thankfully, his wife Nancy and new Chief of Staff Howard Baker convinced the President to take advantage of Gorbachev’s reform agenda. As a result Reagan recaptured much of America’s good will and advanced the cause of world peace. My fellow liberals will probably hang me for that previous sentence but it is the truth.

Our current President is in far worse shape than Reagan was and he deserves to be. He pivoted from a legitimate military response in Afghanistan to a war of choice under false pretenses in Iraq. At best he misled and at worst he lied in a war about oil. President Bush had a unified country behind him after 9/11 and a sympathetic international community. His Administration mistakenly regarded America’s and the world’s immediate rallying behind Bush as a tribute to him. They did not have the perspective to understand that any President would have enjoyed this support in the aftermath of 9/11. Al Gore would have enjoyed a ninety percent approval rating too. Bush squandered his political capital to reward Christian fundamentalists on cultural issues, deliver excessive tax cuts to his corporate base, and gave in to the neo-cons who were thrilled to have a 21st century Pearl Harbor to exploit. A substantial majority of Americans no longer trust this President or regard him as a strong leader. Meanwhile the United States currently finds itself in opposition to the civilized world about torture. Finally, Iraq is poised to become a base of worldwide terrorism whereas it was not before. Indeed, Iraq may well become what Afghanistan was before we overthrew the Taliban if the Jihadists have their way. So Bush is indeed in dire straits and desperate to contain the damage.

For all Bush’s stay the course rhetoric, the center of gravity regarding policy in Iraq has shifted. Congressman Murtha’s proposal was a tsunami. Even as the majority of members in both parties say they disapprove of Murtha’s six-month timetable, they’re essentially moving in that direction. Murtha’s proposal is a reflection of the military’s conventional wisdom that this war cannot be won by force alone. Any victory will have to result from a political solution. Militarily the best the Administration can hope to achieve at this point is preventing the terrorist menace inside Iraq from spreading.

This brings us to Iran. Currently, the one true victor of the Iraq war appears to be Iran. Retired General and former Democratic Presidential candidate Wesley Clark published a thoughtful Op-Ed in the New York Times yesterday, warning of that very possibility. He disagrees with both political parties; neither favoring Bush’s stay the course strategy or Murtha’s redeployment plan. He instead advocates increasing emphasis on securing Iraq’s borders with Iran and Syria. I’m more inclined to agree with Congressman Murtha’s approach. As I see it, we can’t even secure the Mexican border in our own country so trying to secure Iraq’s borders by retaining the occupation is near impossible. However, General Clark’s opinions are not easily dismissed. One part of Clark’s Op-Ed especially captured my attention:

“The American approach shows little sense of Middle Eastern history and politics. As one prominent Kuwait academic explained to me, in the Muslim world the best way to deal with your enemies has always been to assimilate them – you never succeed in killing them all, and by trying to do so you just make more enemies.”
Getting back to Iran, Saddam was a bulwark and prevented them from extending their hegemony in the Persian Gulf. That’s why Saddam’s Arab neighbors put up with him. With Saddam’s removal from power the majority Shiite population has an opportunity to transform Iraq into a theocracy. American Ambassador Negroponte is a skilled professional and has performed ably in facilitating compromises among the Shiite’s, Kurds, and Sunnis on paper. But paper is only paper. The constitution under the Weimar Republic was merely paper as well. So for that matter was the Provisional Government under Alexander Kerensky in 1917 after Czar Nicholas II was removed from power. Iraq is a tinderbox and the mullah’s of Iran are lying in the high weeds.

Iran is also vulnerable to instability in Iraq. For one thing, Al Quaeda and the Iranians are untrusting rivals and different culturally. Al Quaeda is on the front lines of fomenting terror and without a country. The mullah’s of Iran have been in power for a generation and foment terror through proxies such as Hezbelloah in Israel. During the Cold War, Moscow fought ruthlessly by proxy across the globe but preferred stability on their borders. Too much unrest in Iraq has the potential to result in blow back for the Iranians. Saddam wanted nothing to do with Al Quaeda because he knew he couldn’t control them. In spite of their religion the mullahs of Iran and Al Quaeda are in very different positions. Al Quaeda gains by instability while the mullah’s want to preserve their control. There is also the potential spillover of instability among the former Sunni Baathists and the Kurds.

Added to this mix is an Iranian population primarily under age 30 and restive. While their newly elected President utters bombastic rhetoric against the West and Israel the people would prefer a rapprochement with the West. Iran needs western credits, reduced tension levels with the IAEA so they don’t have to endure a sanctions regime, and economic opportunities for their young population that is increasingly pro American. So while an Islamic theocracy may be desirable, stability is just as important to them. They want to preserve their own authority and are suspicious of anything they can’t control. They also don’t want to have a threatening neighbor in Iraq because they remember the bloody war Saddam waged with them for eight years. Finally, they don’t want the Americans threatening them right next-door and Iraqi instability might force the Americans to stay rather than leave. Put it all together and they need to talk.

The Bush Administration needs stability in Iraq and can’t have it without the cooperation of the Iranians. Terrorism will not be contained inside Iraq unless the United States can reach a diplomatic accommodation with Iran. The Bush Administration realizes this and during the past week the two governments engaged in the highest level of negotiations since the 1979 revolution. Not surprisingly the Iranians are playing hard to get for now and refused more overtures. In their judgment Bush needs to talk more than they do and they can wait him out to extract more concessions. I think they're right. We have not heard the end of this Administration’s outreach to Iran. Bush has no choice. We will knock on Iran’s door again.

For Bush, a diplomatic initiative may be an opportunity to transform his image from the imperialist who tortures Muslims to peacemaker. He is currently shut out domestically. The President’s prestige is emaciated internationally. Bush's entire legacy is contingent upon what happens in Iraq and he needs Iran for any chance at a favorable outcome. We’ve seen this sort of thing before. President Nixon, the staunch anti-Communist reached out to China hoping to gain leverage in Vietnam. Reagan of course. Ariel Sharon, a staunch Israeli Zionist has formed a new political party dedicated to negotiating new borders with a Palestinian state. So, could it be that George W. Bush, reviled by Muslims worldwide, will go to a charter member of the "Axis of Evil" in Iran? It would be a huge gamble. One that could backfire severely. With three plus years left in Bush's term I predict he will.


VT Poet said...

//The Bush Administration realizes this and during the past week the
two governments engaged in the highest level of negotiations since the
1979 revolution.//

This, more than anything, symbolizes Bush and Cheney's abject failure
in the sphere of foreign policy. And it signifies the abject failure
of the neocons. Who would have thought the United States government
would ever find itself in a position of weakness when negotiating with

One can only wonder at the course of events that has forced Bush, tail
tucked between his legs, to go shuffling off to the Iranians. And what
Bush wants from them is obvious. It's what Bush might be willing to
give the Iranians that is frightening. This isn't the right way to go
about it. It never was.

Rob said...

VT Poet -

I don't disagree with any of your points. Hopefully the scenario will be analagous to this: a man irresponsibly gambles his family's life savings in Las Vegas. An incredibly stupid thing to do. But he gets lucky and wins a forturne. Bush has put us in a position where he needs to draw an inside straight with Iran. The odds are against him doing so. But for all our sakes, I hope he does.

Iran I think will be an interesting country to watch over the next few years. We've seen the Chinese come to an understanding with their people that as long as the people accept Communist Party rule, the people will be granted more econmic freedom and opportunity.

In Iran's case that is much harder to do because of the religion factor. At the same time the youthful and restive population will be pushing for more. Those internal intensions will play a factor in any diplomatic initiative with Iran. Hopefully it works to our advantage. I have little faith that the Bush Administration can properly finesse it.

I hope that years from now it will be said, "only Bush could go to Iran." We'll see.


ghost said...


Fortunately, I did not think this prediction is going to come to pass anytime soon. Recent comments by the President of Iran have made certain of that!

If you want to talk about someone who is truly dangerous and deluded, how about him.


Rob said...

Ghost -

I think you're being a little short sighted. You're assuming this bombastic President will be still be in power all remaining years of Bush's term. I do not. In fact, I think every bombastic utterance from his lips only serves to facilitate his eventual political demise and three years is a VERY LONG TIME.

Behind the scenes the technocrats of the Iranian bureaucracy are quite disenchanted with this new President's leadership and rhetoric. They see him as an anathema to their international prestige and interests (much the way many Americans view Bush!). They also think he's nuts - all kinds of leaks can be found in foreign policy journals from sources inside the Iranian government. He was elected largely through a combination of apathetic protest and economic discontent.

On the American side there is simple reality which is ignored by people on the Left and Right. Friends of mine who are liberals are convinced Bush will invade Iran. I consider this nonsense and have told them so. I don't doubt that the neo-cons would LIKE very much to invade Iran. But even the deluded minds of conservatives and neo-cons are forced to acquiesce to the "reality based community" on this one. Our forces have been too depreciated and mismanaged to mount a military initiative in Iran - even with the construction of military bases in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the same time Iran does have to be engaged because of their increasing hegemony in the Gulf and the overall projection of their power. As I wrote, Iran is going to need to talk to us and I cited some of the reasons. We're going to need an accommodation with them for stability.

I stand by my prediction: Bush will be visiting Iran and talking to some future head of state - especially if Cheney and Rumsfeld are replaced. I hope it goes well and he doesn't give too much. I fear he will be playing a weak hand due to his administration's egregious policies. I don't trust his competence or judgment to do it right. Hopefully it works out for the best.


Ghost said...


I wish you were right about the President of Iran having a short stay in power. However, you totally ignore the most important reason he is in power - he is supported by the radical clergy which in reality runs the country. If the Grand Ayatollah continues to support him, all those more moderate foreign service types you are pinning your hopes on will just continue to lose their jobs as many have already.

As for the US invading Iran, it is much more likely that Israel will feel obligated to bomb Iran given the lack of any progress in containing Iran's nuclear ambitions and the comments of the Iranian President. You do realize that Iran already has missiles that can reach Israel and that in military parades those missiles often say something like "wipe Israel off the map" in Persian. The only question is what the extent of Israel's capabilities are, and whether anyone in the region will provide any refueling facilities.

I'll take the bet and state that Bush will not visit Iran during his term and that the President of Iran will serve out the remainder of his term unless he is killed.

Rob said...

Ghost -

I'll take that bet because this Iranian President doesn't only have to worry about moderates but the hardliners too. It's not just clerics but tough minded technocrats and experienced old hands who want to preserve the regime's power. They see him as a danger to their authority because among other things he's incompetent as well as a blowhard. Also, domestic politics does matter in Iran. This guy will be dealt with. Meanwhile, Iran's hegemony will have to be addressed and we can't do it militarily. Iran needs to talk for reasons I outlined and Bush will have to as well. The current Iranian President is a blip. This will happen. Three years is a long, long time.

If it doesn't happen that I very much fear a confrontation may be imposed on us that thanks to the past three years of Bush policies we'll be too overextended to prosecute effecitively or obtain much needed international support.