November 13, 2006

Moving Negotiations with Iran Beyond Appeasement, If That is Even Possible

Carroll Andrew Morse

The world anxiously awaits the report from the "Iraq Study Group" (aka the Baker-Hamilton commission) on what major changes the U.S. should make in conducting the War in Iraq. Most media sources anticipate that a key recommendation from the commission will be opening negotiations with Iran and Syria. Here's some representative speculation from Martin Walker of United Press International...

[T]hese high stakes also involve Iraq's neighbors in the region, who must somehow be brought into the process if Iraq is to be stabilized. This may well mean sitting down to negotiate with unsavory regimes like Syria and Iran, and accepting that they too have regional interests that will have to be dealt with....

[T]he wise men will make clear, as they have done before in different contexts, their conviction that Israel-Palestine is the key to the stabilization of the Middle East. It is the running sore, the constant focus of Arab anger and resentment, the blood opera of Arab TV screens, as central to modern Arab political culture as the Trojan Wars to ancient Greece, and rather longer lasting.

What precisely are these regional interests, important to our Baker-Hamilton-approved potential negotiating partners in Syria in Iran, that need to be addressed? Well, here's a fresh quote from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as reported today by Agence France-Presse, that explains pretty clearly the Iranian position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict...
According to the Iranian media Monday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that Israel was destined to "disappearance and destruction" at a council meeting with Iranian ministers.

"The western powers created the Zionist regime in order to expand their control of the area. This regime massacres Palestinians everyday, but since this regime is against nature, we will soon witness its disappearance and destruction," Ahmadinejad said.
Repeated calls by Ahmadinejad for the destruction of an American ally are the source of hawkish skepticism that negotiating with Iran serves American interests. It's not that hawks don't believe in negotiating. It's that hawks believe that the different sides in a conflict have to recognize the right of the others to exist before meaningful negotiation becomes possible. Without agreement that mutual coexistence is the starting point, negotiation becomes merely war-by-other-means, a tactical maneuver used by one side to continue a conflict against others.

Unfortunately, there is little potential for finding a good faith negotiating partner in a radical Islamist government prone to describing other governments as "unnatural". Ahmadinejad's choice of words reflect a central tenant of Islamic radicalism -- that it is "unnatural" to expect harmony on earth where Islamic law (the immutable system, created by God, for governing relations between men) is absent and that any institutions not based on Islamic law must be destroyed, because such institutions stand between man and Islam, the only path that will bring harmony to relations amongst men.

Those optimistic about Iran's potential as a peaceful negotiating partner (like the Iraq Study Group) obviously discount the Iranian government's official fundamentalist rhetoric. Both realists (aka "Republican Marxists") and progressives are comfortable dealing with governments that are based on violent, intolerant ideas, becasue they believe that economic forces ultimately erase all else in foreign affairs. Stanley Kurtz provides a pretty fair rendering of the negotiate-at-any-price position in today's National Review Online...

Those who favor a grand bargain believe that a faction of the leadership in Tehran is more pragmatic than the radicals who support Ahmadinejad. And while the Iranian public is nationalist enough to favor a nuclear program (many Iranians believe the government's line that the program is strictly for peaceful purposes), the public's first concern is the economy.

So those who favor a grand bargain (Kenneth Pollack, for example) believe that a combination of big economic carrots and big economic sticks might bring Iran's public over to the side of the "pragmatists." In a showdown (provoked by tough economic sanctions) between the pragmatists and Ahmadinejad's radicals, power would shift to Tehran's own "realists." The Iranian economy is in bad shape. Instead of being plowed into investment, Iran's oil revenues are doled out to the regime's core supporters through a web of patronage/corruption. Hold out the possibility of a national financial bonanza on the other side of tough economic sanctions, and Iran's long-suffering public will side with the pragmatists against the radicals.

But it can hardly be called "realistic" for the U.S. to ignore the fundamental beliefs of any government that it intends to negotiate with. If negotiations with Iran have any hope of creating a lasting peace, they must include the question of whether the Iranian government believes that governments and social institutions not based on Islamic law -- including Israel -- have a basic right to exist. If the Iranians cannot answer such questions in an unambiguously tolerant, pluralistic manner, then the United States has no obligation to provide Iran with any assistance or security guarantees.

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So what exactly are you suggesting, Mr Morse? What sort of action do you recommend?

It's a good thing that Iraq was such a cakewalk, so we have the military capability to deal with a real threat.

Because we all know that containment never works. That's why the Soviet Union is still such a menace.

Posted by: klaus at November 13, 2006 8:15 PM

I'm all for containment. But the first step in containment is deciding that your ultimate goal is to bring about regime change. Containment is not "hold the line and hope for the best", it is actively pressuring a totalitarian adversary until it's government changes into something better.

But if liberals in the United States can't agree that a government that openly threatens a democratic ally is a legitimate target for regime change, then the U.S. can't achieve the unity to carry out a containment policy.

Posted by: Andrew at November 14, 2006 11:23 AM

Why is it not possible to forumulate a response withouth calling me names? Can someone explain that?

On topic, my question is how long is "ultimate"?

OK, you want regime change. But on what sort of timetable? The Cold War took 40-50 years before that happened. But the good news is there were no nuclear exchanges in that rather long interrim. And they threatened to "bury" the entire "west," not just one ally.

The impression (which could be wrong) I get from this sort of thing is that "your" (generic) timeline barely stretches into years, let alone decades. What are you talking? In three years? One? Three months?

Because this sort of gauzy, unrealistic thinking is what got us where we are in Iraq. A vague, hazy goal that sounds ever-so-tough, but completely lacking anything like a realistic plan to pull it off. Go off half-cocked, and then wonder why you find yourself in a mess.

So, sure. Regime change may be a legitimate goal. But HOW? Another solo mission for the US of A? And WHEN?

Unless and until someone proposes some real hard answers to these questions, sorry. It's just another erotic fantasy for the cowboy wannabes.

I've said this before: I thought Conservatives were the steely-eyed realists, who understood the world. That's nonsense. The Conservative opinion I get is all dreamy, wishful thinking about how omnipotent we are. And then calling me a traitor because I recognize the fact that our resources are not infinite.

So talk. I'm listening.

Posted by: klaus at November 14, 2006 6:11 PM


1. There’s no point forming a timetable if you can’t get consensus that regimes like Iran need to be changed. It’s not clear from your reply above where you stand on that. You seem to be saying that as long as they only overtly threaten our allies, we should bargain with them. But selling out allies to gain “peace” never works out. Eventually, you run out of allies.

1a. And once you reject the basis of containment, and offer only “hold the line and hope for the best”, you shouldn’t be surprised when the public backs the more militant options they are presented with.

2. If you do get the domestic consensus necessary for containment, the HOW involves rewarding your allies and isolating your enemies. In this particular instance, that involves getting off foreign oil, but we’re on the road to that anyway if oil prices stay high. The US needs to lead a massive overhaul of international institutions, reducing the legitimacy and the commercial advantages tyrannical regimes gets from rubbing elbows with actual, representative governments.

So what’s real hard about that?

3. Reagan was accused of being dangerously unrealistic for daring to believe that we could win Cold War. Was he not conservative?

Posted by: Andrew at November 15, 2006 6:15 PM
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