Middle East Roundtable
Edition 16 Volume 7 - April 30, 2009
The emerging US-Iran dynamic
• Where do we go from here? - Arshin Adib-Moghaddam
What we can realistically hope for in the short run is a "cold peace".
• The answer is always Clausewitz - Mark Perry
We can threaten to let loose the dogs of war, but we will not be believed.
• Just the beginning - Michael Rubin
Every US president has sought rapprochement with the Islamic Republic.
• The first 100 days - Sadegh Zibakalam
Those who write about Iranian history in the future will refer to Obama's New Year message as a turning point.
Where do we go from here?
Make no mistake about it. The overtures that President Barack Obama has made to Iran since his election in November 2008 are momentous. In his first sit-down interview, which he symbolically gave to the Arabic satellite network al-Arabiya, Obama addressed Iran directly, asking the leaders of the country to "unclench their fist" so that they can shake hands with the "international community". On the occasion of the Persian New Year celebrations in March 2009, he reiterated his willingness to talk to Iranian leaders, setting a markedly different tone than his predecessor George W. Bush. Although his administration has not followed up rhetoric with policy yet, Obama has set the stage for rather less raucous engagements between the two countries. This may yield a "cold peace" characterized by diplomatic rivalry rather than militaristic coercion.
On the other side of the cognitive divide, President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad became the first Iranian leader in three decades to officially congratulate a US president-elect, a gesture acknowledged by Obama at a news conference in January 2009. So there is a lot of politics involved at this stage, including backdoor messages via third parties (e.g., Turkey and Switzerland) and a good dose of "veiled" or clandestine diplomacy. In general, many are hoping that things are moving in a better, rather more conciliatory direction.
This salutary moment of hope, intermittently suspended when Ahmadinezhad usurps center stage such as during the recent UN racism conference in Geneva, should not distract from the real strategic issues that threaten to keep the US and Iran apart. The strategic preferences of the two countries continue to clash along three issues: a) the pro-Israel policies of the US versus Iran's subversion of Israeli power within the region and beyond; b) US efforts to contain populist Islamist movements such as Hamas and Hizballah versus Iran's support for them; c) and the United States' opposition to populist leftist movements, especially in Latin America, which clashes with Iran's close cooperation with them.
So, on the one side we have Iran, which perceives itself as an ideological superpower poised to export the revolutionary call for empowerment and independence to receptive agents in the international environment. On the other side, the United States (including Obama) firmly believes in the Americo-centric configuration of world politics. These self-perceptions are in many ways mutually exclusive. But that does not mean that the US and Iran need be perennial enemies. What we can realistically hope for in the short run is a "cold peace" that can be achieved within three interrelated contexts and along three mutual interests. In Iraq, both the US and Iran support the stability of the al-Maliki government and the unity of the Iraqi nation-state. This mutual interest has already led to some low level diplomatic engagements throughout 2008. In Afghanistan, an equally important strategic theater, both states oppose the resurgence of the Taliban and support the government of Hamid Karzai politically and economically. And on a global scale, both the US and Iran are opposed to al-Qaeda type movements that are virulently anti-American and anti-Shi'ite/anti-Iranian.
Tehran will pay particular attention to US initiatives vis-a-vis the nuclear issue. More specifically it will measure the policy-value of Obama's conciliatory speeches with an assessment of its actions in the United Nations Security Council. Thus far the Obama administration has not shown any willingness to move away from the rather aggressive sanctions policy pursued by successive US administrations, which has done nothing but alienate the pragmatists in Iran. Yet an emphasis on "positive" rather than gunboat diplomacy is required in order to prepare the way for trust-building measures between the countries. For at the center of Iran's concern is an understandable insecurity dilemma that needs to be addressed in any negotiations, given that the country is geo-strategically located at the heart of a conflict zone that extends from Palestine/Israel in western Asia, over Iraq and Afghanistan to Pakistan/India in southern Asia. To put it simply: a state that does not feel threatened would not think about nuclear weapons in the first place.
These are some components for a positive-sum game between the two countries that would ensure that both parties benefit from dialogue and acknowledgement of each other's interests within a context of mutual respect and engagement. It would seem to me, therefore, that any efforts from the neo-conservatives in the United States and their brothers in arms in Israel to entangle us in a confrontation with Iran must be understood not as a recipe to prevent the country from going nuclear, but rather as incitement to surreptitious aggression and a prelude to war. And that is exactly what we do not need. - Published 30/4/2009 Â© bitterlemons-international.org
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is the author of, most recently, "Iran in World Politics" (2008) and "The International Politics of the Persian Gulf" which has just been republished by Routledge as a paperback.
The answer is always Clausewitz
The wry and oft-repeated saying among senior American military officers is always good for a laugh: "no matter what the question," they claim, "the answer is always Clausewitz." Unlike many war theoreticians, Prussian Major General Carl von Clausewitz actually served in the military--fighting Napoleon and spending time in a French prison. He was released in time to witness Wellington's British squares crush Bonaparte's Imperial Guard at Waterloo. His "On War" was published posthumously. For nearly two hundred years, Clausewitz's work has retained its power. It was studied by Mao, was carried in the knapsacks of Vietnamese soldiers at Dien Bien Phu, was required reading among Saddam Hussein's senior commanders.
We have Clausewitz to thank for German militarism: the Prussian army wasn't really an army until he came along--its officer corps took pride in the length of their ponytails and scoffed at the notion that they should actually command troops. The Germans have since discarded Clausewitz's most trenchant lessons: surveying the ruins of their cities in the wake of the last European war, they relegated "On War" to the dustbin of German history. Not so with America's officers, for whom "On War" is viewed with the same awed faith that believing Christians reserve for the Nicene Creed. America's commanders talk of war's "fog", its "friction" and the "strategic center of gravity"--all from the lexicon of the Clausewitz catechism.
Clausewitz's most famous Te Deum--that "war is a continuation of politics by other means"--is celebrated for good reason: it is a reflection of his belief that military commanders can practice and perfect their craft, much as Beethoven or Goethe practiced and perfected theirs. That war takes lives is not pertinent; organized killing is a specious fact undampened by good intentions. Even so, at the heart of the Clausewitz dictum is the unswerving belief that war is the result of failed diplomacy and not the other way around. That Clausewitz's descendents got this so terribly wrong was obvious in 1945. Having seen their military utterly destroyed, German diplomats had nothing left to talk about. What were they going to do: use harsh language?
Clausewitz is taught at nearly all of America's military colleges; it is as central to the study of war as Cicero is to the humanities. Yet, while "On War" is required reading for military officers, it is ignored by American politicians. Thus, Clausewitz's seminal lesson remains unlearned: that diplomacy is best practiced under a threat of certain pain-to-come. Yet, the not-so-secret truth about America's military is that it is exhausted, its army victimized by multiple deployments in an unnecessary war, the cream of its combat officer corps seeking employment elsewhere, its newest recruits dredged from the un-and-under employed. We can threaten to let loose the dogs of war, but we will not be believed.
We Americans now celebrate our willingness to talk, to grasp the hand of those who unclench their fist. That the world, and most especially the Iranian leadership, remains skeptical of this offer should not be a surprise. For we have gotten Clausewitz exactly wrong: we are talking not to prevent conflict, but because we have no choice. Which is why the Iranian leadership is insisting that any talks with America focus on a host of regional and international issues, and not simply on their nuclear program. Their insistence on this is a test of our good intentions--as it should be. Are we really interested in regional stability? Do we really want to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? They will undoubtedly tell us (if they have not already) that the road to peace and stability in the region does not run through Tehran (as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu insists), but through Jerusalem.
We dismiss this view at our peril, for it is the one thing that every state in the region--from Iran to Saudi Arabia to Jordan--believes. That is to say: if the United States is truly interested in forging a new era of stability in the Middle East, and a new understanding with Iran, then President Obama can begin by telling Netanyahu that we expect Israel to be as good a friend to us as we have been to them. Netanyahu can confirm this by shifting Israel's policy on settlements in the West Bank. The United States, President Obama should say, does not want Israel's settlements frozen, it wants them removed. That can start now. The reward for this act of friendship will be our continuing commitment to Israel's defense. This message need not be confrontational, but it must be clear. Then too, the message has a certain elegance. It will convince Iran that we intend to follow our words with actions. At the same time it meets that other central tenet of the Clausewitz canon: a nation's strength is defined not by the size of its army, but by whether it means what it says. - Published 30/4/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Mark Perry is a director of the Washington and Beirut-based Conflicts Forum and the author of Partners in Command: George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace.
Just the beginning
President Barack Obama has made outreach to the Islamic Republic of Iran a foreign policy centerpiece of his administration. At his inauguration, he promised that if US adversaries would unclench their fists the United States would extend a hand. Then, in his first major television interview, he told al-Arabiya satellite TV, "It is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but [also] where there are potential avenues for progress. And we will over the next several months be laying out our general framework and approach."
He has. US diplomats have sought out their Iranian counterparts at international forums and agreed to meet Iranian officials without precondition. On March 20, Obama released a Nowruz greeting in which, without precedent, he declared, "The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations," implicitly recognizing the current government as the legitimate representative of the Iranian people.
Obama believes in born-again diplomacy--that whether with Iran, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, North Korea or Russia it is possible to forget the past and start anew. Alas, the world does not revolve around Obama nor has the reason for the poor state of US-Iran relations been simply lack of past effort.
Every US president has sought rapprochement with the Islamic Republic. US diplomats remained in Tehran throughout the revolution, first by choice and later, of course, as hostages. It is ironic that President Jimmy Carter's desire to engage sparked the embassy seizure, as Iranian radicals responded to the perceived threat of rapprochement symbolized by National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski's handshake with Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan by storming the compound to disrupt that process. Nevertheless, Carter allowed the Islamic Republic to retain its embassy in Washington for five more months, hoping to keep open a possibility for dialogue.
The Reagan administration also sought relations, even sending former National Security Advisor Robert "Bud" McFarlane to Tehran. Speaking at the University of Tehran on December 9, 2008, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani ridiculed the attempt, recalling how, "McFarlane came here and our authorities were not willing to talk to him. Only our second and third rate authorities talked to him." McFarlane returned empty-handed.
Twenty years ago, there was again hope for change. The Iran-Iraq war had ended, Ayatollah Rohallah Khomeini was dead and Hashemi Rafsanjani, lauded as a pragmatist in the West, won the presidency. "I don't want to...think that the status quo has to go on forever," President George H.W. Bush told a press conference shortly after his inauguration.
President Bill Clinton, too, reached out to the Islamic Republic, even authorizing Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to engage her Iranian counterpart in a one-on-one meeting, an opportunity lost when Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, shortly before the rendezvous, ordered Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi not to show.
And despite President George W. Bush branding Tehran as part of the Axis of Evil--a mild comment compared to near daily Iranian calls for America's demise--there was greater engagement with Tehran under Bush than under any administration since Carter's. Alas, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, the White House discovered that Iranian diplomats either did not speak for the Revolutionary Guards or did not keep their promises.
So where does this leave Obama? There is an unfortunate dynamic in Washington in which new administrations fault predecessors rather than adversaries for failure to engage productively. No matter what their preconceptions before entering the Oval Office, however, all presidents discover they are powerless to resolve differences with Tehran when Iran's leadership does not desire it. Hence, while the presidents or foreign ministers of countries like Bolivia, Eritrea and Senegal, let alone Hamas leaders, receive audiences with the Supreme Leader, the Iranian leadership refuses to allow US diplomats even to set foot in Tehran. And while journalists and academics applaud Obama's overtures, they too often ignore the Iranian response, for example Khamenei's Apr. 15, 2009 speech at Imam Hossein University where he declared, "The recommendation to return to the global order is the same as capitulating to the bullying powers and accepting the unjust world order."
The Islamic Republic is an ideological entity. It roots sovereignty not in the will of its citizens but upon the notion that the supreme leader acts as a place holder for the Hidden Imam. As a system it has failed. Iran's economy is in tatters and the regime preserves power through the ever more pervasive Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
To deflect responsibility for failure, it pays to have an enemy to rally masses around the flag. Iran's leadership has determined that the United States--the "Great Satan"--is it. Meaningful rapprochement would mean the regime's demise. Rather than work to improve relations with the US, therefore, Iranian authorities, either directly or by proxy, impose ever more obstacles. Alas, Ahmadinezhad's recent speech at Geneva and the arrest of Roxanna Saberi are just the beginning.- Published 30/4/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.
The first 100 days
US President Barack Obama's Iranian New Year message caught many Iranians, including many Iranian leaders, by surprise. Those who write about Iranian history in the future will refer to Obama's message as a turning point in relations between the post-Iranian revolution and its arch enemy, the United States.
The message contained several important and unprecedented points. First, unlike all previous messages from US leaders, it did not try to drive a wedge between the Islamic leadership and the Iranian people. Second, it avoided all the previous charges that successive US leaders have leveled at the Islamic regime since its birth in 1979. There was no call for Iran to abandon its nuclear program, no demand that it stop supporting Hamas and other militant groups in the region, nor was the frequent accusation of interference in the affairs of other states, notably Iraq, repeated.
But perhaps the most crucial point about Obama's New Year message was his reference to the "Islamic Republic of Iran" rather than simply saying Iran. This was the first time since the Iranian revolution and the birth of the Islamic regime in Iran in 1979 that a US president referred to Iran properly. Whether or not Obama realized it, that part of his speech was interpreted in Iran as delivering a significant message to Iranian leaders, to the effect that the US was prepared to recognize the Islamic revolution and therefore the Islamic Republic of Iran. In other words, the US had abandoned the strategy of regime change in Iran.
Obama's speech was far more conciliatory than even the most optimistic Iranians had anticipated. The US president had fully extended his hand to the Iranian leaders and the ball was now in their court. Less than 48 hours after the speech, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, speaking on the occasion of the beginning of the Iranian New Year, responded to Obama's olive branch.
Before analyzing the Iranian leader's response, we must consider the awkward position in which Obama's message placed the Iranian leaders. Hitherto, their approach toward the US was one of outright dismissal and condemnation for its arrogant power and behavior, support for Israel, inimical policies against Islam and Islamic states, illegitimate occupation of Islamic countries (Iraq and Afghanistan), exploitation of third world countries and the like. Khamenei's remarks about America's past and present policies in the region and throughout the world were particularly strong and scornful, invariably including severe attacks on US presidents.
His speech this New Year, however, was much softer regarding the US than anyone could recall. He refrained from the usual salvo against America's detrimental role in the world and its arrogant and power-hungry president. Instead, he maintained that words alone were insufficient to solve the problems. The US, continued the Iranian supreme leader, must take practical steps to prove that it is sincere in its aspiration to avoid repeating past mistakes and to adopt a new and different strategy. Thus the ayatollah did not slam the door on Obama; he was prepared to wait until the new US president demonstrated that he was genuine in carrying out changes. A more positive response was yet to come, surprisingly, from hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad. Still, Ahmadinezhad did not go beyond the supreme leader's guidelines and basically maintained that Iran was prepared to have "serious, positive and constructive dialogue with the US".
Yet not all the responses from across the ruling hard-line spectrum were lukewarm or ready to give Obama a chance. The more radical currents and figures warned the others not to trust "the gimmick, the disguise that the new US president was hiding behind". A leading hard-line newspaper used an old and famous Iranian proverb to describe the new US president: "a baby wolf that is raised with a human being will ultimately turn into a wolf." In other words, sooner or later Obama would present his real "face", one that is not very different from that of the previous US president. Every word used by the new administration regarding Iran that sounded similar to the previous vocabulary was highlighted in print to demonstrate the "wolf's" real character. US statements that did not correspond to this theory were either neglected or were exploited so as to demonstrate the arrogance of American power.
On balance, however, the atmosphere in Tehran is one of "wait-and-see". The customary daily shouts of "death to America" have decreased as has the burning of the US flag. While it is too early to conclude that detente has emerged between Iran and the US, many Iranians remain optimistic that the time is right for change between the two countries.- Published 30/4/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of Iranian Studies at Tehran University.
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