Monday, December 5, 2011

Post #102 - Talking is the First Step

"You don't promote the cause of peace by talking only to people with whom you agree." (Dwight David Eisenhower)

" wise as serpents and harmless as doves." (Matthew 10:16)

Writing in 1932 about the post-World War I disarmament negotiations about to begin, Albert Einstein said: "Success in such great affairs is not a matter of cleverness, or even shrewdness, but instead a matter of honorable conduct and mutual confidence. You cannot substitute intellect for moral conduct in this matter -- I should like to say, thank God that you cannot! It is not the task of the individual who lives in this critical time merely to await results and to criticize. He must serve this great cause as well as he can. For the fate of all humanity will be that fate which it honestly earns and deserves."

Einstein was talking about the outright abolition of war, a goal then considered by some to be within reach, but which sadly now appears farther from our grasp than ever. I think his approach is the only one fit for a Christian. The practical benefits of war should always be suspect; as Chaucer put it, “War but kicks against a sharpened awl.”

It has been said: "If we think we hear, we no longer listen; if we think we see, we no longer look; if we think we know, we no longer search." The last administration manifested insularity, stubbornness, cock-eyed optimism and a sad inability to learn, in the face of on-the-ground reality, from its mistakes. The current administration started on a positive note, but seems to have lost its way and reverted to form. Direct negotiations have now been endorsed by a long list of experienced practitioners: former National Security Advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Skowcroft, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright and James Baker, and Baker's co-chair of the Iraq Study Group former Senator Lee Hamilton, as well as the Study Group itself.

An attitude of openness and receptivity, leaving aside preconditions or a fixed agenda, would go a long way to recreate the possibility of something meaningful happening in international talks. Intelligence estimates from the CIA agree with the assessment of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation that “Iran does not currently pose an imminent threat to the United States, and is unlikely to do so for several years, perhaps not for more than a decade [this estimate was made about five years ago]. We have time to do this right. Moreover, every bit of resources that are spent futilely in the Middle East region is that much less that can be used for Katrina victims who still suffer, healthcare for poor children or finding alternatives to fossil fuels. As a sign read at a massive anti-war march in 2008, “Iran didn't steal my pension!” Occupy Wall Streeters might say "Iran didn't ruin our economy!" (In fact, with Iran shut out of so much international commerce due to sanctions, the country was likely less impacted than the United States or our European trading partners.)

There are signs that, for their part, Iranians are ready. Selig Harrison reported at one point that Mohammed Adrianfar, editor of Hammihan and identified with the moderate former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, said: "The atmosphere here is for starting negotiations and relations. People want stability. The slogan `Death to America' doesn't work, and our leaders know it." Though Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad has held on to his office, there are fissures appearing in the wider regime in Tehran.

Chief among the areas to be addressed in negotiations are:
  • Achieving stability and progress in Iraq, our client state and Iran's neighbor;
  • Preventing the spread of terrorism, another common concern;
  • Giving security assurances both to Iran, that it will not be attacked or invaded, and to the United States that Iran will not develop a nuclear weapon or recklessly distribute nuclear material or technology;
  • Finding a balance between the meeting of Iran's legitimate energy needs and the world's need for safeguards against proliferation of nuclear weapons and inappropriate transport of radioactive materials;
  • Establishing a mechanism for solving left-over U.S.-Iran antagonisms such as frozen assets and private claims;
  • Developing equitable business relationships on both the exporting of natural resources and cooperation on alternative forms of energy and energy conservation. Iran could be an important new market for American goods and services.

Kaveh Afrasiabi
Kaveh Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He is also author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction. He has suggested, in an Asia Times article, a set of “ground rules” for serious negotiation, which I paraphrase here:

1. Each side must do its homework to understand clearly the other side's interests and problems.
2. Each must have a clear understanding of its own interests and priorities, and be willing to have them scrutinized by the other.
3. Each must seek to “dilute” the differences that separate them, by distinguishing between the “deal-breakers” and the ones that can be lived with. Some interests will even correspond to the priorities of the other side (combating terrorism, Gulf stability, containment of Iraq's civil strife, etc.).
4. Each must forswear coercive diplomacy, in favor of conciliation.
5. Each must be willing to engage in sustained, constructive dialogue, with meaningful follow-up actions.
6. A series of positive signals must be sent to reassure the opposite number and maintain the momentum of improvement of relations.
7. Each must engage in the process in good faith, eschewing deception (or even the perception of deception), political expediency overcoming the integrity of the process, or allowing negative rumors to derail it.
8. Significant constructive steps should be acknowledged and reinforced by appropriate public recognition.
9. The scope of the process must, as needed, be expanded to include other national actors, the United Nations, etc.

Kenneth Timmerman
Though we may be tempted to go beyond this laborious and measured approach – to speed up the process, to “make things happen” on our own timetable, we would do well to take a lesson from an exchange in February 2007 between Kenneth Timmerman, executive director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, and Iran “hawk”; and Francis Fukuyama, the Harvard PhD who left the Department of State to do research and writing on public policy:

Timmerman: “...this is not a popular regime in Iran. Would you make the moral and strategic case for not pursuing the one policy that we have never tried, and this is to help the people of Iran rid themselves of the regime? Why is that a wrong thing to do?"
Fukuyama: “...this goes to a much deeper question about how does democratic regime change in any country come about and just the way you phrased that question makes it sound as if it's up to us: that if only we act and make these decisions on behalf of the Iranian people, that they will take up this baton and do that....there is a lot that we can do at certain key junctures. We were important in the Philippines, in South Korea, in Chile in the 1980's – not in the 1970's – in promoting democratic regime change at these critical junctures, but we were never in control of the timing and we were never the primary drivers. It always had to be internal to the country."

At least one figure on the Christian right, Gary L. Jarmin (he has been associated with the Council for National Policy, the American Freedom Coalition and the American Coalition for Traditional Values, and chaired Christians for Reagan in two elections), in a push-back to a supporter of Bush administration policies, said: "We traditional conservatives do not necessarily disagree with promoting democracy, just the means being used to promote it. Attempting to impose our values at gunpoint while ignoring history, faith and culture is not a "moral vision"'s just plain naive and stupid." (Jarmin was reacting to an October 10, 2007 Michael Gerson column in the Washington Post.)

This kind of caution is all the more relevant when we consider when we, the United States, did -- and didn't -- intervene in the region during the past half-century or so. In the 1950's we helped overthrow a “popular regime” in Iran in favor of a dictatorship; in the 1970's we failed to help a popular rebellion against that government, as we would later stand by when the Kurds and Iraqi Shi'es (at our urging) attempted to topple Saddam Hussein, leaving thousands of them to a brutal fate at his hands. (Saddam's quashing of that uprising, we should note, utilized weapons described in Timmerman's own book The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq.) We supported the Taliban when the alternative was Soviet control, and then lived to rue those actions.

(An additional move toward fairness would be to introduce the inclusion of a majority Muslim nation as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. Symbols and gestures count.)

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