Monday, April 20, 2009

How Not to Engage with Iran

By Barry Rubin

A man named John Tirman has written an article in the Boston Globe, April 19, entitled, "Bold action needed on Iran." His bio accompanying the op-ed tells us, "John Tirman is executive director and principal research scientist at MIT's Center for International Studies, and author of a new study, A New Diplomatic Approach to Iran."

So what does he know about Iran? Tirman tells us that the Iranians fear the United States. While President Obama's conciliatory message was a start, he continues, "Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, and Ali Larijani, the speaker of parliament, both noted the change of language while insisting that words were not enough. They want action."

It is not surprising that they demand that the United States must do something while they need do nothing. It is only surprising that Americans can be found to endorse such a policy. Tirman finds this demand to be "uniform and plausible" because the United States has done things against that country (overthrow the regime in 1953, supported the shah, put sanctions and embargoes on Iran, etc.)

By the way, it is ironic that Tirman says that "even the Islamists find deeply embittering" that the United States helped overthrow the nationalists in 1953. After all, they supported the coup at the time because they feared--with real reason--the regime would become Communist.

What's important, though, is that while it is understandable in international affairs that your adversary's idea of the perfect outcome is that you to give everything and get nothing, you don't have to do it.

But Tirman's basic argument is what is constantly broadcast by mainstream media and by at least a part of the Obama administration, including the president itself: the United States created the problems; the United States must make concessions to fix them.

Let's imagine what a sensible approach would be. An author like Tirman could say: the United States has done these things, the Iranian regime has done those things, so both sides must take steps. Yet this is not what he says--nor what many others say about Iran and other radical forces in the world (revolutionary Islamist groups, Syria, Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela, among them).

Instead, Tirman doesn't mention anything that Iran has done to cause offense to the United States, to give America an incentive to put on embargoes and take other action. No mention of the regime's rejection of U.S. conciliatory approaches in 1979, the hostage crisis, the anti-Americanism, the threats, the subversion, the sponsorship of terrorism, trying and succeeding in killing Americans in Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

To take this one-sided approach is to become a propagandist for the Tehran dictatorship. If you want to change U.S. policy, at least present both sides.

What Tirman let's us know, however, is very useful. If the other side rejects your offer, that means you must give them more. It is a very peculiar way of waging diplomacy. Here is how he puts it: "Even Obama's constructive [moves] are not enough....Along with the small gestures and "juicier carrots" are bigger sticks at the ready - the rewards-and-coercion tandem that has failed time and again, and which Iran thoroughly rejects."

So, Iran rejects your approach of using pressure, so throw away any pressure. They want only concessions. So you must give them concessions.

There is something almost psychologically unbalanced about this view of the world, of a conception which puts all the blame on your own side and says you must yield whatever is demanded.

Here is Tirman's plan for U.S. strategy. I have to quote it in full or you wouldn't believe it. Obama must do the following things:

"First is to lift the unilateral economic sanctions. (Those related to Iran's nuclear development could stay in place until that matter is resolved.) The sanctions and frozen assets are politically foolhardy and do not hurt the regime.

"Second, convey security guarantees to end all threats of regime change or military attacks. We have no legal leg to support such threats, and changing this policy could transform Iran's own security perceptions. Obama has taken steps on that, but he needs to be more explicit.

"Third, normalize relations. There have been numerous missed opportunities over the years in part because we could not speak to each other directly, and normal diplomatic ties would help with all outstanding issues. Normalization should be an instrument of diplomacy, not a reward."

Ok, so the United States drops all sanctions not directly tied to helping Iran build nuclear facilities, promises not to attack Iran, and then normalizes relations. And what does Iran do? Why, it accepts the American concessions.

He continues:

"None of these actions imposes risks on the United States. If, as is likely, they pave the way to a better relationship with Iran, the security of our friends in the region would be enhanced. Help with Iraq and Afghanistan, now among the top US priorities, would also be in the offing. With a better relationship devoid of threats, Iran is far more likely to cooperate on its nuclear development program. In fact, Israeli security would be strengthened by a new US-Iran d├ętente."

Note there is no--absolutely no--analysis of the regime's own interests or its conception of Iranian interests. To compare Iran to other situations where diplomatic conciliation has worked, you have to show why Tehran would want to change its ways. Analyze its ambitions, goals, leadership conflicts, economic needs, ideology, regime structure.

There is nothing of this in the article or in scores of other such articles being written and--for some bizarre reason--published in leading American newspapers.

Oh yes: "The two countries share many interests," he explains, "stability and security, above all."

Does Iran really want the stability and security of the neighboring countries or does it prefer to dominate them and see them transformed into Islamist states like itself? Can the Iranian regime survive without stirring up hatred of America and distrust of the West? These are questions worth asking and examining seriously

Then there is the new noblesse oblige of power so common in the kind of thinking that seems to so often dominate the Western debate:

"Iran must do its part in such a process, but we can't expect it to respond more energetically than our own actions warrant. The United States is more powerful than Iran, we surround it militarily, and have attempted, time and again, to bring its government down. It is Washington that must take steps to undo the failed policies of coercion before we can expect Tehran to reciprocate. But reciprocate it will. Its interests are as clear as ours, and they all point to a better bilateral relationship."

The United States is strong so it must give to the weak; the United States has failed and so it must give up, the United States has sinned against Iran so it must make up for it.

What is so shocking and worrisome here is that one could come up with a strategy for trying to engage the Iranian regime. But when government officials, academics, and newspapers talk in this way, it is clear that they are incapable of handling such a process. When I read articles like this I become far more suspicious and convinced of the dangers of this kind of conciliation.

This kind of thinking is far worse than appeasement, it is a masochistic eagerness to surrender, to throw oneself on the mercy of an adversary that doesn't have any.

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