Sunday, October 16, 2011

Post #5 - Failure to Communicate

Why should it have been so utterly impossible, during the thirty-plus years of the Islamic Republic's existence, for our two governments to have found a way to communicate? Neither country is the same as it was when the Islamic Revolution took place, yet leaders of both nations act as though frozen in that time and those circumstances. Sandra Mackey, in her 1998 book The Iranians, said: "Current American policy on Iran began in that calamitous year of 1979 when the fall of Muhammed Reza Shah left the United States stunned and adrift in the crucial Persian Gulf. When disciples of Ayatollah Khomeini captured the American Embassy, anger took over from confusion. And anger and confusion have led four [now five] administrations to flounder in what is in essence a rudderless boat carrying the vital interests of the United States." As Ray Takeyh wrote (in his Hidden Iran, NY, Henry Holt, 2006):
"getting Iran wrong is the single thread that has linked American administrations of all political persuasion."

However, Bush U.S. foreign policy represented, as former-president Carter said, “a radical departure from all previous administration policies” in its aggressive unilateralism and its embrace of preemptive or preventive action, considered by many to be in contravention of international law (or even punishable as a war crime, if such a prosecution could ever take place). Otto von Bismarck, unifier of Germany and no shrinking violet, likened preventive war to “committing suicide because you're afraid of dying.” Though a majority of Americans consistently favor limiting attacks by states to self-defense, nowhere has Bismarck's warning been more applicable -- or more studiously ignored -- than in the U.S. approach to Iraq and Iran.

The two countries are hardly two peas in a pod. Scott Ritter, former IAEA arms inspector, spent time in Iran in 2006 (researching his book called Target Iran). He wrote in The Nation: "I recently returned from a trip to Iran, where over the course of a week...I had my eyes opened...Iran is nothing like Iraq. I spent more than seven years in Iraq and know firsthand what a totalitarian dictatorship looks and acts like. Iran is not such as nation...[it is] a vibrant society that operates free of an oppressive security apparatus such as the one that dominated Iraqi life in the time of Saddam Hussein....Iran has functioning domestic security apparatus, but it most definitely is not an all-seeing, all-controlling police state, any more than the United States is in the post 9/11 era..."

I quoted the Sufi poet Rumi previously. American poet Coleman Barks numbers among the many thousands who have admired Rumi through the centuries (I met Barks in 2006 in the central square in Esfahan, where he had gone to take part in a literary gathering.) In his recently-published volume A Year with Rumi, Barks described Rumi's work, now surprisingly popular in the United States, in this way: "[T]he meditative silence and no-mind of Zen, the open heart and compassion of Jesus, the stern discipline of Muhammad, the convivial humor of Taoists, the crazy wisdom and bright intelligence of the Jewish Hasidic masters. Rumi is a planetary poet, loved the world over for the grandeur of his surrender and for the freedom and grace of his poetry." In the current impasse our diplomats would do well to ponder Rumi's words: “Do not look at my outward shape/ But take what is in my hand.” The signals coming from Iran over the past few years have shown both assertiveness and flexibility, both stubbornness and hints – sometimes broad hints – of possible compromise. But can we get past the one, in order to build on the other?

Dayton Peace Museum director talking with young Iranians
Recent indications are that we cannot. Though little has fundamentally changed between our two countries since the 80's, the drums of war beat 'round about us ever louder. Suddenly, we hear more and more about women's dress codes, human rights and the threat posed by Shi'ite Islam. Yet these concerns are often based on fairly skimpy substantive knowledge. Not only is our hard intelligence on military, political and technical matters sorely lacking, but direct familiarity with contemporary Iranian culture and politics is nearly non-existent. A February 2007 report by Network 2020 contained this astounding information: "In the context of tensions between the U.S. and Iran, [then-]American Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns told us that the U.S. and Iran maintain only limited back-channel contacts. Burns reported that he himself has never been in a room with an Iranian official and that the State Department does not have a cadre of Farsi speakers. 'There is no one in my generation who’s ever served in Iran,' he said. 'There’s no one in my generation who has ever worked with the Iranians in any way, shape or form…' ” More recently (in a June 8, 2007 roundtable with the Wall Street Journal editorial board), Condoleeza Rice “confessed that she couldn't figure Iran out,” according to a Washington Post account of the meeting. “I think it's a very opaque place," Rice said, "and it's a political system I don't understand very well.” Rice, remember, was speaking as the Secretary of State, our most senior foreign policy official.

The Clinton State Department had the good sense to tap the expertise of Ambassador John Limbert, one of the Americans most knowledgeable about Iranian culture and thought. But did his tenure at State make a fundamental difference? It appears that it did not.

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