Misreading Obama’s Misreading of Iran

Mideast journalist Patrick Seale has a new column in the Diplomat asserting that Iran has “defeated” Obama, whose alleged policies of “demonizing” the Islamic Republic continue to throw away a golden chance at engagement. It’s unusual to see a piece so full of errors in a major publication, so I felt it would be worth addressing.

Obama did misread Iran, but in precisely the opposite direction from that which Seale alleges. The candidate Obama took a very open, soft stance to Iran, making promises of face-to-face meetings with no preconditions. Obama meant it, too–it was, in technical terms, a costly signal, for Clinton and McCain criticized him for it relentlessly, yet he stuck to his guns. Obama thought that by opening America’s ears to Tehran, there would be a change in calculations as the mullahs realized that the US was not an eternal enemy and that our two nations share some common interests and, beneath the chador of the state’s harsh Islamism, a lot of common culture. Those taking this position have a lot of explaining to do–how can America even be neutral towards a major proliferator and sponsor of terror, how can it ignore the soldiers dead from Iranian bombs in Iraq, how can it ignore the tragic repression of one of the world’s most ancient cultures? However, it’s not a totally indefensible position by any means. There are always glimmers of hope emerging from beneath the system, and the hardline stance of the regime gives it few friends–shouldn’t it want to reach out? Can’t the perennial appearance of reformists be a sign of a chance for detente?

Obama's openness to Iran was widely criticized, but it didn't last. (Image via patdollard.com)

However, Obama’s attempts to reach out were rebuffed in the most thorough way before he had even been in office five months. Mass protests followed the suspicious outcome of the June 2009 presidential election, and the regime launched a brutal crackdown. The mask of democracy fell away. Even a pro-engagement president like Obama could no longer sustain his efforts. With hope gone that the electoral processes in Iran would be allowed to produce change, other features of Iran’s foreign policy became salient. The Administration shifted–but not to the right, to the center. It hasn’t been pushing for big action. It’s resisting calls to sanction Iran’s central bank even though it’s a known forum for the financing of terror. Its sanctions measures are a relatively soft response to Iran’s continued intransigence on its nuclear program and its intense support for actors like Hezbollah (and now Bashar al Assad). The US would be justified in doing a lot more if it were so inclined.

With that as a primer, let’s take a look at some of the finer points of Seale’s essay:

Israel has repeatedly, and very publicly, threatened to strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities, and has done its best to drag the United States into war against it, in much the same way as pro-Israeli neo-conservatives at the Pentagon [emphasis mine] were alleged to have manipulated intelligence to push the United States into war against Iraq in 2003, with catastrophic consequences.

This is just an error. Israel has long been more concerned with Iran, including in the run-up to conflict with Iraq, and they communicated this through back channels–it’s mentioned, for instance, in Richard Haass’s War of Necessity, War of Choice. Saddam Hussein was no philosemite, but the Israelis did not see him as their leading regional threat.

Why did they do it? Because they feared that, having survived the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq might just possibly pose a threat to Israel. It had to be destroyed.

A cursory examination of the Iran-Iraq War shows that it devastated both sides, weakening them considerably. With the 1990-1991 Gulf War and the sanctions regime, Iraq was a sickly state. Israeli threat assessments can border on the paranoid, but they’re hardly blind. They knew Saddam wasn’t going to come over and extinguish Israel anytime soon.

Assassinations and other acts of state terrorism are short-term expedients that usually end up being paid for dearly. Countries have long memories. Hate isn’t easily expunged. The United States, and to a lesser extent Britain, are still paying for their clandestine overthrow in 1953 of Mohammad Mosaddeq, Iran’s democratically-elected prime minister, whose ‘crime’ was to seek to protect Iran’s oil from imperialist predators.

As with the comment on Iran-Iraq, Seale seems to favor the long view. This isn’t a mortal sin by any means, but it must be employed cautiously. Yes, Iran is still sore about Mossadeq. The Islamic Republic knows that their country has been a chess piece since at least the end of the Qajar dynasty, so they’re watchful for attempts at outside influence. But so are the Turks, with their perpetual talk about the Treaty of Sevres, yet they’re more or less responsible members of the international community. Fewer and fewer Iranians alive today can remember the fall of Mossadeq, and indeed Iranians are widely held to have more positive attitudes about the US than can be found in almost any other Middle Eastern country.

Why has Netanyahu chosen to portray Iran’s nuclear programme as the gravest threat to the survival of the Jewish people since Hitler? He must know that this is pure fantasy.

If you think Netanyahu is not given over to occasional fantasies, you really don’t know Netanyahu.

 [Israel] wants to be the uncontested military power from Tehran to Casablanca. Hence the hysteria it has sought to generate over Iran’s nuclear programme and over Hizbollah’s rockets.

Israel aspires to uncontested power? Warn the Saudis, Turks, and Egyptians–the first Israeli airstrikes against their militaries must be only minutes away!

The threat of Hezbollah’s rockets is real–it might even be a more serious one than an Iranian bomb. An Iranian nuclear strike on Israel can probably be deterred by the threat of certain Israeli retaliation and the possibility of American involvement. This is not the case with Hezbollah, which launched rockets against the Israelis during the 2006 war while fighting them to a draw. Israel can only intervene in entangling and unpleasant ways, and the US is unlikely to intervene at all. Iran has significantly improved the accuracy, range, and quantity of the rockets in Hezbollah’s arsenal since the end of the 2006 war. It’s now believed that Hezbollah can fire rockets against any target in Israel, that it can hit relevant area targets like military bases, and that its total arsenal is 30,000 rockets or more (though only a few hundred are high-end). Israel occupies a position of immense geopolitical strength, so one should always take their claims of vulnerability with a grain of Dead Sea salt, but in this case we really must remember the Jewish state’s small size. Hezbollah is dangerous.

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy has been particularly active in rousing opinion against all three members of the [“Tehran-Damascus-Hizbollah] axis. To quote a single example among many, in an overheated article in Foreign Affairs last month, Matthew Levitt described Hizbollah as one of the largest and most sophisticated criminal operations in the world.

I haven’t read Levitt’s article, but if that’s an accurate summary, it’s not wildly off-mark by any means. Sure, criminal organizations like the Chinese Triads have much larger membership rolls (300,000 . . . I am still waiting for someone to begin selling “Everything’s bigger in China” t-shirts). However, for a group in such a tiny country, Hezbollah punches well above its weight. It’s got a long history of operations all over the world, including deadly bombings in Argentina during the 1990s and ties to the drug trade. I just learned today that they were even involved in cigarette smuggling here in the United States, and they had a hand in selling counterfeit goods on the streets of New York City. The Islamic Resistance in Lebanon has criminal connections that serve as both a source of funds and a potential vector for insecurity.

But the relentless demonising of Iran goes on. Most recently, David S. Cohen, undersecretary for terrorism at the US Treasury, made the excitable accusation that ‘Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world today.’

Even if we ignored the massive amounts of aid sent to Hezbollah, we’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger state sponsor of terror. The IRGC even has a branch, the Quds Force, dedicated to aiding “resistance” movements around the world.

Had the United States conceded Iran’s right to develop a peaceful nuclear programme, as allowed under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the [Turkey-Brazil] deal could have provided the basis for a global settlement.

Iran’s nuclear program has come to a bit of a standstill of late. IAEA reports around the time of the Stuxnet incidents showed around 9,000 centrifuges in place in the enrichment halls of Natanz. That’s well below the facility’s 50,000 centrifuge capacity. However, Iran’s nuclear program is not entirely peaceful in purpose. They’re either heading towards a bomb or an ability to develop one rapidly if things start looking bad. The unveiling of the heavily-fortified enrichment hall northeast of Qom confirms that. Iran announced the intention to dedicate the 3,000 centrifuge capacity of the facility (referred to in IAEA documents as Fordow, after a village south of Qom that is nowhere near the site in question) to the production of 19.75% enriched uranium for the Tehran Research Reactor. The thing is, their stated intention (which I doubt they’ll fulfill due to their own incapacity) is to fill the Qom facility with IR-2 centrifuges, giving it the ability to make way more 19.75% enriched uranium than TRR could ever use. Iran’s nuclear program is a long story of petty violations like that. It’s salami tactics–they take just a little more every few months, because the world would rather tolerate one more little slice than take risky measures in response. The NPT allows states to have peaceful nuclear programs, but that doesn’t mean that states can develop whatever weapon-precursor technologies they please. The Turkey-Brazil proposal would not have ended Iran’s nuclear misbehavior–it would only have created an illusion.

Obama’s initial openness to Iran turned out to be based on an erroneous perception. Obama saw Iran’s increasingly disconcerting behavior and changed his approach. Others would be wise to learn from his example.

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