Sunday, April 8, 2012

Post #237 - Iran/US 101

The Campaign for Constructive Dialogue is an initiative instigated by a group called the Campaign against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran (CASMII) (which I helped to found). Here are some notes written in conjunction with that initiative written during the George W. Bush administration:

Many Americans, especially those of Persian birth or heritage, want to know how to communicate most effectively to U.S. decision-makers their profound concern about the direction in which international events seem to be heading vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear program. The following “talking points” are intended as a contribution to, but not a substitute for, individual reflection and research on the part of US citizens and their membership organizations. The hope is to allow members of Congress and others to benefit from the unique perspectives of these citizens when seeking resolution of the thorny and complex issues that are wrapped up in the “Iran crisis.”

1.) The History of U.S.-Iran Relations

For Iranians, whether in Iran, in the United States, or elsewhere, it is a mistake for us to try to evaluate current relations without taking into account the history of the bi-national relationship, which is a complex one. It includes a long history of cooperation and friendship – massive numbers of Iranians educated in the United States, assistance to Iran by teachers, Peace Corps Volunteers and others, generous relief aid for earthquake recovery (prior to 1979), and so on. The people of Iran -- arguably more than any other population in the region – feel great affection for the people of the United States.

However, this history also includes interference in internal affairs by the U.S. Goverment, oil companies and other Western entities over the past 100 years or more, US complicity (finally acknowledged by the Clinton administration) in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government in the 1950’s, and suffering due to economic sanctions that continue to the present day.

This darker side of the relationship is typified by the hurtful and provocative “axis of evil” statement in President Bush’s State of the Nation address, and more recent pronouncements in the same vein. For Americans to remember only the embassy hostage-taking, or the latest utterance by the Iranian president, is to deny the larger context.

2.) The Status of Iran under the Non-Proliferation Treaty

Most Americans can be forgiven for believing that Iran is “in violation” of the NPT. In fact, although there was a period of time during which there were lapses in full reporting by Iran in the past, there is no provision of the NPT with which Iran is now not in compliance. The United States only “reported” to the Security Council its desire that Iran act with greater transparency and scale back its R&D programs -- a desire which the UN and its agencies have bought into.

The U.S. agenda has been to deny any possibility of Iran having a capacity to enrich uranium (even for peaceful energy-generation purposes), despite the fact that the NPT clearly allows Iran to acquire such capability. As an original signatory of the Treaty, Iran gave up its rights to weapons in exchange for a guarantee to be permitted to develop nuclear energy to serve its national needs. Conversely, the United States is itself in violation, in that it has not lived up to the commitment of the original “nuclear states” to advance toward disarmament – a requirement for each of the signatories that already possessed nuclear weaponry.

Last year [2007] former defense secretary Robert McNamara summed up his concerns in Foreign Policy magazine: "I would characterize current U.S. nuclear weapons policy as immoral, illegal, militarily unnecessary, and dreadfully dangerous." (as quoted by former president Jimmy Carter)

3.) The Question of Nuclear Energy Development

While the phrase “inalienable right to nuclear enrichment” has come to be somewhat of a cliché, even in Iran, it reflects a strong consensus that the country has not been dealt with by the international community in a way that conveys either respect or compassion. There is a feeling among Iranians that they must look out for their national interests and their welfare, because no one else will do it. Part of an ultimate win-win solution will have to be a recognition of the energy needs of Iran’s population (three times that of Iraq) as it attempts to modernize, achieve economic growth and ameliorate healthcare, education and infrastructure.

The recent U.S. acquiescence in a vigorous nuclear program for India – both peaceful and weapons-producing -- gives the lie to oft-repeated concerns about non-proliferation or reduction of weapons stockpiles. Also, the generally-acknowledged and now largely-ignored development project in North Korea (arguably, a more malevolent dictatorship than the regime in Iran), the instability of the government in (nuclear) Pakistan, and the open secret of Israel’s nuclear weapons capability – all expose the egregiously double-standard approach to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

4.) The Question of Human Rights and Democratization in Iran

Although the administration has made frequent references to the conditions under which Iranian citizens live, its assertion that outside assistance and/or coercion is either sufficient or necessary to facilitate realization of Iranians’ democratic aspirations must be carefully examined. It rests on two bases: U.S. resources or support, and reliance on existing anti-regime groups. Both are unreliable tools to advance reform in Iran. For example, although the Mujaheddin (a.k.a. MEK or MKO) is an “opposition group”, it does not enjoy wide-spread allegiance from Iranians either within or outside Iran. Its terrorist activities (officially cited by the Department of State), its siding with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, and its aggressively antagonistic approach toward other Iranian political groups have rendered it a “horse that will not run” for the vast majority of Iranians. Similarly, the “monarchists”, while they command respect among those who are nostalgic for a relatively peaceful period of Iranian history, have not convinced many that a return to Pahlavi leadership is a realistic or desirable remedy for Iran's current troubles. Even the reformists in Iran – represented by ex-president Khatami – came to be viewed by the electorate as ineffectual. Absent a viable alternative, to foment disaffection toward the current leaders from without might just produce a more chaotic and unpredictable political dynamic, as many fear may happen in Egypt, Libya or Syria.

More importantly, the low regard in which the Bush administration is held by the vast majority of Iranians of whatever political stripe means that outside intervention or interference – especially from the United States – is met with a jaundiced view. Unless and until there is very different official stance toward Iran and Iranians, one that moves away from “axis of evil” rhetoric and belligerent threats of air-strikes, the proffering of such help such as that envisioned under the Middle East Peace Initiative (MEPI) grants prospectus is, in fact, not helpful to the democratic elements in Iran. [after it was seen that visible U.S. aid to non-governmental groups in Iran actually did more harm than good, this aid was either stopped or became covert, AP].

5.) The Role of Iran vis-à-vis Iraq

Most viewed the decision last week to allow the U.S. ambassador to Iraq to open discussions with Iranian representatives as a positive step. But the value of this apparent opening was immediately undercut by “clarifying” statements by the administration to make painfully clear its intention to avoid anything approaching a “dialogue.” If the White House wanted to underscore its purported desire for peaceful resolution of problem, it could have permitted a real exchange of views between Iranian and U.S. delegates. President Kennedy said: “Never negotiate out of fear, but never fear to negotiate.” He had to deal with an infinitely more powerful and dangerous adversary, the Soviet Union, but knew that unwillingness to listen and engage with an adversary can connote arrogance or fear, rather than confidence and strength.

Iran has an important tie of faith and belief with the majority Shi’ite population of Iraq, whose safety is still threatened by the Sunni minority that was more favored by Saddam Hussein. Some Iranians' feelings about active support to their Shi’ite brethren across the border may be seen as similar to those felt by many Cubans in Florida who prepared the Bay-of-Pigs invasion. But the solution to the cross-border situation is inextricably tied up with the larger Iran-West adversarial relationship, as nothing the United States representatives might now put forward regarding Iraq is likely to be seen in a favorable light.

6.) The Impacts of Punitive Sanctions

It is obvious that the sanctions that have been applied against Iran have led neither to the capitulation of the regime in Tehran, nor to gradually more “acceptable” leaders being put in charge of that country. Sanctions against Serbia created hardships for all Serbs, even those who opposed Slobodan Milosevic. Sanctions against Iraq did not create a more pacific Iraq, nor inconvenience Saddam Hussein personally, but are widely believed to have resulted in many deaths of innocent children and others not a part of the Baathist ruling clique. Why sanctions would be expected to be effective in derailing Iran’s nuclear plans – especially in a country that endured incredible deprivation without crumbling when met with aggression from its neighbor just a few years ago -- is hard to comprehend. The leader of any nation under sanctions -- whether Castro, Milosevic or Ahmadinezhad -- can point to that condition as strong evidence of the ill-will of those who are imposing them, thereby bolstering his own position.

7.) The Impacts of Conventional Warfare

Many seem content to surmise that “with all that’s going on in Iraq [now Afghanistan, AP], the administration would never start another invasion in Iran.” Yet, there are reports of various kinds of clandestine activities within Iranian territory, and administration experts are compiling “dossiers” on cultural groups that might be relied upon to destabilize portions of that country. Ground troops partnered with CIA operatives were the “point of the spear” when the United States initiated actions in Afghanistan. It is in this way that massive ground movements sometimes begin: “not with a bang” (to paraphrase Eliot) but with a stealthy incursion.

Once begun, a ground assault, even with overpowering air support, would almost certainly be met with a determined and battle-hardened response by many of the same Iranians who against all odds defied the Iraqi assaults on their borders and their cities (President Ahmadinezhad having been one of them). The American public has been signaling a thinning of its willingness to indulge [White House] adventures when they are costly, protracted and based on little or no discernible strategic rationale. It is even harder to project a credible end-game in the case of Iran as it has been in Iraq [and Afghanistan].

7.) The Impacts of Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Prof. Jorge Hirsch, a physicist with the University of California at San Diego, points out that U.S. Government documents present the use of so-called tactical nuclear weapons – particularly the “bunker-buster” variety -- as a fit tool to deal with the possibility of another nation threatening the United States, even absent any hard evidence to that effect. He estimates that even the smartest of smart bombs, designed to detonate underground could immediately create hundreds or thousands of casualties, and many more if a significant cloud of radioactive particulate should result.

The greater, and even more chilling, impact of the use of such weapon would be to set the clock back to the time of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Again, the world sees the fearsome power of the United States military. This time, however, we would not so clearly be “on the side of the angels”. Iran is not Imperial Japan; it has not tried to take over Asia, aligned itself with a brutal thousand-year Reich, or occupied its neighbors. Moreover, many of Iranians; difficulties could be plausibly laid at the feet of the Americans, from the Islamic revolution (as a reaction to the Shah’s reign), to life under sanctions and their current isolation from the world. For Muslims around the world, in particular, this would not be seen as the “good guys” riding in like the cavalry of the classic westerns; probably more like hordes of barbarians ravaging with irresistible brutality. The “nuclear option” carries so much emotional weight with the average person – though apparently not with NSC strategists – that its use must always be a sword with two edges: one cuts the enemy, the other cuts the one that wields it. We risk becoming the pariah state that we have tried to make Iran.

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