Monday, May 25, 2009

Have We Already Lost Iran? Flint Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett [New York Times]

The New York Times

May 24, 2009
Op-Ed Contributors
Have We Already Lost Iran?


Commentary by William O. Beeman:
The ducks at AIPAC, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) are pecking the Obama administration to death on Iran. Dennis Ross, in particular, as outlined in the article below, is a fifth-column neoconservative connected with WINEP who is trying to make sure that negotiation with Iran fails in anticipation of an eventual military attack on the Islamic Republic. ("We tried everything, and so now we have to bomb them"). Americans should understand that the little rat terriers at these institutions are obsessed with Iran, and will not give up their monomaniacal inability to support any rapprochement between Iran and the West. As long as we have such people in positions of power, the Middle East region will continue to be an unstable and dangerous place.

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S Iran policy has, in all likelihood, already failed. On its present course, the White House’s approach will not stop Tehran’s development of a nuclear fuel program — or, as Iran’s successful test of a medium-range, solid-fuel missile last week underscored, military capacities of other sorts. It will also not provide an alternative to continued antagonism between the United States and Iran — a posture that for 30 years has proved increasingly damaging to the interests of the United States and its allies in the Middle East.

This judgment may seem both premature and overly severe. We do not make it happily. We voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and we still want him to succeed in reversing the deterioration in America’s strategic position. But we also believe that successful diplomacy with Iran is essential to that end. Unless President Obama and his national security team take a fundamentally different approach to Tehran, they will not achieve a breakthrough.

This is a genuine shame, for President Obama had the potential to do so much better for America’s position in the Middle East. In his greeting to “the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” on the Persian New Year in March, Mr. Obama included language meant to assuage Iranian skepticism about America’s willingness to end efforts to topple the regime and pursue comprehensive diplomacy.

Iranian diplomats have told us that the president’s professed willingness to deal with Iran on the “basis of mutual interest” in an atmosphere of “mutual respect” was particularly well received in Tehran. They say that the quick response of the nation’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — which included the unprecedented statement that “should you change, our behavior will change, too” — was a sincere signal of Iran’s openness to substantive diplomatic proposals from the new American administration.

Unfortunately, Mr. Obama is backing away from the bold steps required to achieve strategic, Nixon-to-China-type rapprochement with Tehran. Administration officials have professed disappointment that Iranian leaders have not responded more warmly to Mr. Obama’s rhetoric. Many say that the detention of the Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi (who was released this month) and Ayatollah Khamenei’s claim last week that America is “fomenting terrorism” inside Iran show that trying to engage Tehran is a fool’s errand.

But this ignores the real reason Iranian leaders have not responded to the new president more enthusiastically: the Obama administration has done nothing to cancel or repudiate an ostensibly covert but well-publicized program, begun in President George W. Bush’s second term, to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to destabilize the Islamic Republic. Under these circumstances, the Iranian government — regardless of who wins the presidential elections on June 12 — will continue to suspect that American intentions toward the Islamic Republic remain, ultimately, hostile.

In this context, the Saberi case should be interpreted not as the work of unspecified “hard-liners” in Tehran out to destroy prospects for improved relations with Washington, but rather as part of the Iranian leadership’s misguided but fundamentally defensive reaction to an American government campaign to bring about regime change. Similarly, Ayatollah Khamenei’s charge that “money, arms and organizations are being used by the Americans directly across our western border to fight the Islamic Republic’s system” reflects legitimate concern about American intentions. Mr. Obama has reinforced this concern by refusing to pursue an American-Iranian “grand bargain” — a comprehensive framework for resolving major bilateral differences and fundamentally realigning relations.

More broadly, President Obama has made several policy and personnel decisions that have undermined the promise of his encouraging rhetoric about Iran. On the personnel front, the problem begins at the top, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. As a presidential candidate, then-Senator Clinton ran well to the right of Mr. Obama on Iran, even saying she would “totally obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel. Since becoming secretary of state, Clinton has told a number of allies in Europe and the Persian Gulf that she is skeptical that diplomacy with Iran will prove fruitful and testified to Congress that negotiations are primarily useful to garner support for “crippling” multilateral sanctions against Iran.

First of all, this posture is feckless, as Secretary Clinton does not have broad international support for sanctions that would come anywhere close to being crippling. More significantly, this posture is cynically counterproductive, for it eviscerates the credibility of any American diplomatic overtures in the eyes of Iranian leaders across the Islamic Republic’s political spectrum.

Even more disturbing is President Obama’s willingness to have Dennis Ross become the point person for Iran policy at the State Department. Mr. Ross has long been an advocate of what he describes as an “engagement with pressure” strategy toward Tehran, meaning that the United States should project a willingness to negotiate with Iran largely to elicit broader regional and international support for intensifying economic pressure on the Islamic Republic.

In conversations with Mr. Ross before Mr. Obama’s election, we asked him if he really believed that engage-with-pressure would bring concessions from Iran. He forthrightly acknowledged that this was unlikely. Why, then, was he advocating a diplomatic course that, in his judgment, would probably fail? Because, he told us, if Iran continued to expand its nuclear fuel program, at some point in the next couple of years President Bush’s successor would need to order military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets. Citing past “diplomacy” would be necessary for that president to claim any military action was legitimate.

Iranian officials are fully aware of Mr. Ross’s views — and are increasingly suspicious that he is determined that the Obama administration make, as one senior Iranian diplomat said to us, “an offer we can’t accept,” simply to gain international support for coercive action.

Understandably, given that much of Mr. Obama’s national security team doesn’t share his vision of rapprochement with Iran, America’s overall policy is incoherent. For example, while the administration recently completed a much-ballyhooed review of Iran policy, it has made no changes in its approach to the nuclear issue. Administration officials argue, with what seem to be straight faces, that the Iranian leadership should be impressed simply because American representatives will now show up for any nuclear negotiations with Iran that might take place.

Similarly, some officials suggest that the administration might be prepared to accept limited uranium enrichment on Iranian soil as part of a settlement — effectively asking to be given “credit” merely for acknowledging a well-established reality. Based on our own experience negotiating with Iranians, and our frequent discussions with Iranian diplomats and political figures since leaving the government, we think that it will take a lot more to persuade Tehran of America’s new seriousness.

Tehran will certainly not be persuaded of American seriousness if Washington acquiesces to Israeli insistence on a deadline for successful American engagement with Iran. Although the White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, had told reporters that no such deadline would be imposed, President Obama himself said, after his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, that he wants to see “progress” in nuclear negotiations before the end of the year. He also endorsed the creation of a high-level Israeli-American working group to identify more coercive options if Iran does not meet American conditions for limiting its nuclear activities.

More specifically, Secretary Clinton and Mr. Ross have been pushing the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany to intensify multilateral sanctions against Iran if Tehran has not agreed to limit the expansion of its nuclear-fuel cycle program by the time the United Nations General Assembly convenes in New York at the end of September.

This diplomatic approach is guaranteed to fail. Having a deadline for successful negotiations will undercut the perceived credibility of American diplomacy in Tehran and serve only to prepare the way for more coercive measures. Mr. Obama’s justification for a deadline — that previous American-Iranian negotiations produced “a lot of talk but not always action and follow-through” — is incorrect as far as Iranian behavior was concerned. For example, during talks over Afghanistan after 9/11 in which one of us (Hillary) took part, Tehran deported hundreds of Qaeda and Taliban operatives who had sought sanctuary in Iran, and also helped establish the new Afghan government. It was Washington, not Tehran, that arbitrarily ended these productive talks.

Beyond the nuclear issue, the administration’s approach to Iran degenerates into an only slightly prettified version of George W. Bush’s approach — that is, an effort to contain a perceived Iranian threat without actually trying to resolve underlying political conflicts. Obama administration officials are buying into a Bush-era delusion: that concern about a rising Iranian threat could unite Israel and moderate Arab states in a grand alliance under Washington’s leadership.

President Obama and his team should not be excused for their failure to learn the lessons of recent history in the Middle East — that the prospect of strategic cooperation with Israel is profoundly unpopular with Arab publics and that even moderate Arab regimes cannot sustain such cooperation. The notion of an Israeli-moderate Arab coalition united to contain Iran is not only delusional, it would leave the Palestinian and Syrian-Lebanese tracks of the Arab-Israeli conflict unresolved and prospects for their resolution in free fall. These tracks cannot be resolved without meaningful American interaction with Iran and its regional allies, Hamas and Hezbollah.

Why has President Obama put himself in a position from which he cannot deliver on his own professed interest in improving relations with the Islamic Republic? Some diplomatic veterans who have spoken with him have told us that the president said that he did not realize, when he came to office, how “hard” the Iran problem would be. But what is hard about the Iran problem is not periodic inflammatory statements from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or episodes like Ms. Saberi’s detention. What is really hard is that getting America’s Iran policy “right” would require a president to take positions that some allies and domestic constituencies won’t like.

To fix our Iran policy, the president would have to commit not to use force to change the borders or the form of government of the Islamic Republic. He would also have to accept that Iran will continue enriching uranium, and that the only realistic potential resolution to the nuclear issue would leave Iran in effect like Japan — a nation with an increasingly sophisticated nuclear fuel-cycle program that is carefully safeguarded to manage proliferation risks. Additionally, the president would have to accept that Iran’s relationships with Hamas and Hezbollah will continue, and be willing to work with Tehran to integrate these groups into lasting settlements of the Middle East’s core political conflicts.

It was not easy for President Richard Nixon to discard a quarter-century of failed policy toward the People’s Republic of China and to reorient America’s posture toward Beijing in ways that have served America’s interests extremely well for more than 30 years. That took strategic vision, political ruthlessness and personal determination. We hope that President Obama — contrary to his record so far — will soon begin to demonstrate those same qualities in forging a new approach toward Iran.

Flynt Leverett directs the New America Foundation’s geopolitics of energy initiative and teaches at Penn State’s School of International Affairs. Hillary Mann Leverett is the president of a political risk consultancy. Both are former National Security Council staff members.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Zakaria--Everything you know about Iran is Wrong (Newsweek)

They May Not Want The Bomb

And other unexpected truths.

May 23, 2009

By Fareed Zakaria

Comment by William O. Beeman:
Fareed Zakaria verifies what Iranian experts have been saying for years about Iran--that it is not a theocracy, that it is not a dictatorship in the conventional sense of the term, that Iranians do not have a nuclear weapons program, that Iranian elections are not unfair, that Iranian women are not hopelessly repressed. It is frustrating that unquestioned experts on Iran could have been shouting these truths for years with no effect. Let us hope that a media star like Zakaria can make a dent in the baseless AIPAC-inspired attacks on Iran, and that a saner policy toward the Islamic Republic will emerge in the Obama administration

Everything you know about Iran is wrong, or at least more complicated than you think. Take the bomb. The regime wants to be a nuclear power but could well be happy with a peaceful civilian program (which could make the challenge it poses more complex). What's the evidence? Well, over the last five years, senior Iranian officials at every level have repeatedly asserted that they do not intend to build nuclear weapons. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has quoted the regime's founding father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who asserted that such weapons were "un-Islamic." The country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa in 2004 describing the use of nuclear weapons as immoral. In a subsequent sermon, he declared that "developing, producing or stockpiling nuclear weapons is forbidden under Islam." Last year Khamenei reiterated all these points after meeting with the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei. Now, of course, they could all be lying. But it seems odd for a regime that derives its legitimacy from its fidelity to Islam to declare constantly that these weapons are un-Islamic if it intends to develop them. It would be far shrewder to stop reminding people of Khomeini's statements and stop issuing new fatwas against nukes.

Following a civilian nuclear strategy has big benefits. The country would remain within international law, simply asserting its rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a position that has much support across the world. That would make comprehensive sanctions against Iran impossible. And if Tehran's aim is to expand its regional influence, it doesn't need a bomb to do so. Simply having a clear "breakout" capacity—the ability to weaponize within a few months—would allow it to operate with much greater latitude and impunity in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Iranians aren't suicidal. In an interview last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the Iranian regime as "a messianic, apocalyptic cult." In fact, Iran has tended to behave in a shrewd, calculating manner, advancing its interests when possible, retreating when necessary. The Iranians allied with the United States and against the Taliban in 2001, assisting in the creation of the Karzai government. They worked against the United States in Iraq, where they feared the creation of a pro-U.S. puppet on their border. Earlier this year, during the Gaza war, Israel warned Hizbullah not to launch rockets against it, and there is much evidence that Iran played a role in reining in their proxies. Iran's ruling elite is obsessed with gathering wealth and maintaining power. The argument made by those—including many Israelis for coercive sanctions against Iran is that many in the regime have been squirreling away money into bank accounts in Dubai and Switzerland for their children and grandchildren. These are not actions associated with people who believe that the world is going to end soon.

One of Netanyahu's advisers said of Iran, "Think Amalek." The Bible says that the Amalekites were dedicated enemies of the Jewish people. In 1 Samuel 15, God says, "Go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass." Now, were the president of Iran and his advisers to have cited a religious text that gave divine sanction for the annihilation of an entire race, they would be called, well, messianic.

Iran isn't a dictatorship. It is certainly not a democracy. The regime jails opponents, closes down magazines and tolerates few challenges to its authority. But neither is it a monolithic dictatorship. It might be best described as an oligarchy, with considerable debate and dissent within the elites. Even the so-called Supreme Leader has a constituency, the Assembly of Experts, who selected him and whom he has to keep happy. Ahmadinejad is widely seen as the "mad mullah" who runs the country, but he is not the unquestioned chief executive and is actually a thorn in the side of the clerical establishment. He is a layman with no family connections to major ayatollahs—which makes him a rare figure in the ruling class. He was not initially the favored candidate of the Supreme Leader in the 2005 election. Even now the mullahs clearly dislike him, and he, in turn, does things deliberately designed to undermine their authority. Iran might be ready to deal. We can't know if a deal is possible since we've never tried to negotiate one, not directly. While the regime appears united in its belief that Iran has the right to a civilian nuclear program—a position with broad popular support—some leaders seem sensitive to the costs of the current approach. It is conceivable that these "moderates" would appreciate the potential benefits of limiting their nuclear program, including trade, technology and recognition by the United States. The Iranians insist they must be able to enrich uranium on their own soil. One proposal is for this to take place in Iran but only under the control of an international consortium. It's not a perfect solution because the Iranians could—if they were very creative and dedicated—cheat. But neither is it perfect from the Iranian point of view because it would effectively mean a permanent inspections regime in their country. But both sides might get enough of what they consider crucial for it to work. Why not try this before launching the next Mideast war?

© 2009

Monday, May 11, 2009

William O. Beeman--Roxana Saberi’s Release Bodes Well for U.S.-Iran Relations (New America Media)

Roxana Saberi’s Release Bodes Well for U.S.-Iran Relations

New America Media, Commentary, William O. Beeman, Posted: May 11, 2009

Roxana Saberi, the 32-year-old Iranian-American journalist convicted of espionage in Iran has been released to her family, and will soon return to the United States.

While her international community of family, colleagues and friends can rejoice in her release, it was predictable from the moment of her arrest, based on the history of such events in Iran in the past.

Although no one will know for sure exactly how events proceeded against her, it is possible to speculate how Saberi’s arraignment and trial developed.

The espionage charges against Saberi were utterly unfounded. They were likely the result of an escalation within the Iranian judicial system as official after official tried to cover their tracks for a series of abortive attempts to charge her with a crime.

She was first detained for the relatively minor offense of having purchased a bottle of wine. Since religious minorities in Iran are allowed to manufacture, sell and consume alcohol, the country is awash in liquor. It is easily obtainable by everyone—even government officials. Most likely the arresting official did not know that Saberi was an American passport holder born in the United States, and was probably chagrined to discover that this case was likely to create international brouhaha.

A more serious charge was then sought to justify the first arrest. The discovery that her press credentials had expired some months earlier provided that opportunity. Saberi had continued to file stories for a number of American news outlets, reportedly because officials assured her that the expiration of her press pass was inconsequential. Since she could demonstrate that Iranian officials had allowed her to continue writing, this charge would also not hold water.

Finally, the serious charge of espionage was lodged. As foolish and unsubstantiated as this charge was, it was plausible in Iran. Rumors that American CIA operatives were active in Iran were widely promulgated in Iran. These suspicions were reinforced through extensive documentation found in New York Times reporter James Risen’s 2006 book “State of War.” Additionally, on April 4, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz confirmed an earlier rumor that an Iranian nuclear scientist had been assassinated by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, inside Iran.

Iran experienced one horrendous situation involving a foreigner arrested for spying in Iran in 2003. Canadian-Iranian Zahra Kazemi was raped, beaten and tortured to death (although Iranian authorities claimed she died of a stroke) for allegedly having photographed prohibited parts of Evin Prison, where she was later incarcerated. Her death caused an international uproar. The Iranian government, clearly badly burned by the Kazemi case has since been careful to make sure that her situation is not repeated.

Foreigners -- dual nationals -- accused of espionage have been held for a time, usually in conspicuously humane circumstances, while the government wrings as much publicity out of the event as possible for a domestic and regional audience. The accused prisoners are then released in a show of clemency.

This was the case with Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Ms. Efandiari was visiting her 90-year-old mother in 2006 when she was arrested. It is likely that her connection to Lee Hamilton, director of the Wilson Center, made her an object of suspicion. Hamilton had long connections to the CIA and to groups promoting democratic revolutions in places like Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

Kian Tajbakhsh was arrested at about the same time on the same charges. Tajbakhsh worked for George Soros’ Open Society Institute. Soros had also been active in the same “revolutions” in the region.

Both Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh were held under relatively humane circumstances and released some months later.

The Iranian presidential election next month was also a likely reason for a quick dispensation of Saberi’s case. Iran would like the world to focus on the election, and not on an ongoing saga of an international journalist in their prison system.

In the Saberi case, Iran actually did itself some good. It showed that it had a functioning judicial system—however imperfect—with an appeals process that eventually yielded the correct result.

The Obama administration, by engaging in diplomacy and sober statements of concern regarding Saberi, not only aided the process of her release, but likely set the stage for further improved relations between the United States and Iran. We now have a situation where Iran undertook an action of which the United States disapproved. The United States expressed itself in a non-hostile manner, and the Iranian government responded with a positive redress of that action. This bodes well for future U.S.-Iranian relations. It is only regrettable that this had to come at the price of Saberi’s unjust incarceration.

William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He is past president of the Middle East section of the American Anthropological Association. He has lived and worked in Iran for more than 30 years. His most recent book is The “’Great Satan’ vs. the ‘Mad Mullahs’: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other” (University of Chicago Press, 2008).