Obama’s Realist Iranian Policy

[Part of a series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here The Daily Duck) on my blog-roll; see the about page.]

In an article over at the Daily Duck I opined that Barack Obama had most realistic policy on Iran, and Susan’s husband demurred.

If you think Obama has a good grasp on the strategic issues surrounding Iran, we’d love to hear what that is. Talks without preconditions? Talks with preconditions? Different from the Bush Administration how, exactly? Everything I have heard from Obama on Iran leads me to the exact opposite conclusion, that he has no idea whatsoever what’s going on there or what to do, but is just winging it, shifting his position moment by moment to dodge the incoming flack.

Fair enough. I have listened carefully to Obama on Iran with some trepidation, expecting the usual nonsense but I saw no major mistakes (I am thinking especially of the Russert interview). That is not to say that he really does understand the issues but I think it does suggest that his advisers understand the situation and that he has mastered the brief.

Note that while it is not my reason for supporting his policy, recent polling suggests that the public seems to be swinging behind Obama’s readiness to deal with Iran diplomatically.

The notion that you set preconditionsones that you know the other side won’t acceptbefore the negotiations is just daft. The understanding of diplomacy that has generally taken hold, that it means that we talk nicely to people, to give them a chance to agree with us, before bombing the c**p out of them instead of doing it straight away, is, at least historically speaking, a strange notion of diplomacy, as is the idea that any policy that is less aggressive would be appeasement. I have no idea whether that crude characterization in any way reflects the understanding of the author of the above comment but it seems characterise the general idea of what diplomacy means nowadays (especially in the USA and UK) and of course reflects a Neoconservative view of the world. Reagan after all chose to negotiate with the evil empire.

The evidence suggests that the zero-sum ultra-aggressive approach that the neoconservatives have taken has empowered the Iranians, whether through the invasion of Iraq, the hard-line approach to the Iranian civil nuclear programme, the freezing out of Hamas after their 2006 election victory and triggering the subsequent civil war, or supporting and encouraging the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. All have lead to a decisive strengthening of the Iranian position in the region and a weaking of the US and Israeli position. Please note that this is not because of Iranian aggression but Neoconservative aggression that has allowed the Iranians to naturally benefit from these disastrous policies. (While the Iranian mischief-making with Hezbollah and Hamas is well known, the Israeli and American mischief making in Iran through support for various separatist and revolutionary groups is less well known.)

While McCain and his advisors have a more Neoconservative leaning, Obama and his advisers are taking a realist position. One of the sharpest and best commentators in this school is Trita Parsi, student of recanted-Neoconservative, Francis Fukuyama, and arch-realist Zbigniew Brzezinski. Trita Parsi an American-Iranian, the president of NIAC and has written a brilliant book, Treacherous Alliance, about the relationship between the USA, Israel and Iran, based on a mass of interviews with the people who have been in charge of Iranian and Israeli foreign policy going back to the Shah’s time when all three countries were allies. Israel and Iran remained allies of sorts after the revolution and Israel tried to patch up the alliance, because it was in Iran’s and Israel’s strategic interest. During the Gulf War the Israelis were one of the few countries supplying the mullahs with spare parts. This was the time when Khomeini uttered the phrase that Israel would fade from the page of time that Ahmadinejad quoted shortly after his election and has been lovingly quoted by Neoconservatives ever since. If Khomeini was going exchange sorely needed oil for guns with the Jewish state then he needed a rhetorical smokescreen, and Ahmadinejad has had his own reasons for reheating these remarks. To understand why you will have to read the book which I recommend everyone does (I will write a review). I also recommend Harry Kreisler’s interview with Parsi at UC Berkeley as part of the Conversations with History series.

The evidence points to a desire for the the Iranians to partner with the US in Iraq and the region (see, for example the Leverett & Mann interview and Juan Cole’s latest dispatch and even Ahmadinejad’s remarks shortly after the release of the NIE report on Iran in November). Khamanei agreed to a grand strategic bargain in 2003 (see the Leverett & Mann interview) and he would surely do the same again, but it will require the State Department working out is needed from the Iranians and what can be offered return—diplomacy 101 and something that seems to be a distant and hazy memory. This was the point that Gates made recently. There is much scope for cooperation with the US and Iranian governments backing the same administrations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Note that the Iranians (and of course Khamanei, the supreme leader) were happy in 2003 to countenance demilitarising Hizbollah, ending support for rejectionist palestinian groups, working to stabilize Iraq (which they have been doing anyway), putting in place guarantees for their nuclear programme and de facto recognition of Israel (see the Leverett & Mann interview). In return tyhe Iranians want a strategic partnership with the USA and an end to their civil nuclear programme being obstructed.

This is all on the public record but it forms no part of the standard narrative, just as it was well known that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq posed no threat in 2002 but it was ignored because it didn’t fit the regime change narrative settled on after the ’91 gulf war. Also on the record is the assistance the Iranians provided in the invasion of Afghanistan (they facilitated the whole show, at a time when they were actively persuing détente—see, for example, Treacherous Alliance), yet this is ignored also, the public discourse seemingly content to operate in a near information vacuum and happy to follow the lead set by the governmetns. I recommend reading the writings of Scott Ritter, Trita Parsi, Juan Cole, Gareth Porter and especially Leverett & Mann on the subject, people with diverse poliical backgrounds and who have expended no little effort observing and investigating reality as it relates to relations between the US and Iran.

Barack Obama statements suggest that he (or his advisers) are adhering to the realist school’s analysis and will pursue this line. We do not need more reality-challenged Neoconservative belligerence.

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8 responses to “Obama’s Realist Iranian Policy

  1. Interesting that you quote a demur and then avoid addressing any part of it. I certainly get a clear view of your policy stance, but that hardly addresses the issue.

    For example, you talk about how Trita Parsi is “One of the sharpest and best commentators in this school” yet make no mention of what she thinks Obama’s Iranian policy is. It’s also quite amusing that you link to an article about Obama’s foreign policy advisors that leads with Samantha Power, who got thrown under the bus by Obama months ago. And noting that Obama is getting advice from a Jimmy Carter advisor is certainly not something that’s likely to improve my view of Obama, given how disastrous Carter’s handling of Iran was.

    So, let me ask again: What is Obama’s Iranian policy? I am not the only one who’s confused. I would also note that the Bush administration is, in fact, engaging diplomatically with Iran. The “preconditions” issue has to do with doing the Iranian regime the favor of meeting with the President. That Obama apparently doesn’t grasp this distinction is one more point of how of the moment his policy stance is.

  2. The notion that you set preconditions—ones that you know the other side won’t accept—before the negotiations is just daft.

    Your notion of preconditions and negotiations does not fly.

    In any negotiation, each party has various goals which it values to varying degrees. Some ostensible goals might very well be on the list simply as giveaways. Others, perhaps only one, are sine qua non.

    Which is where Susan’s Husband is right on the money.

    The US’s sine qua non with respect to Iran is nuclear weapons.

    Consequently, unless, when push comes to shove, Obama is ultimately willing to acquiesce in the face of Iran developing nuclear weapons, he in fact insists upon the same precondition as the Bush administration does: Iran will not have nuclear weapons, even if military action is required to prevent that end.

    This is a zero sum game. Either Iran obtains nuclear weapons, or they do not. The only question is at what point they decide their national interests are not consistent with obtaining nuclear weapons, or we decide our interests are consistent with them having nuclear weapons.

    Given the perfectly appalling statements emanating from Iran, conjoined with 12th Imam theology, I think acquiescence a very bad idea indeed.

    Your mileage may vary.

    … Obama and his advisers are taking a realist position.

    Which is what, precisely? If you summarized it above, I sure missed it.

  3. Hey Skipper: the entirety of my posts have been given over to explaining the difference between Neoconservative and realist approaches to foreign policy. Crudely put, Neoconservatives start from the position that they are right and the enemy is we have the military power to whack the enemy so they had better do what we say or else. In other words we are an empire now, we are the law and create our own reality. This has been the increasing assumption since the demise of the Soviet Union and unipolar era. It is now so much of an assumption that people can’t understand that there is any other way of doing things.

    Realists, crudely speaking see it as important to understand the forces that are in play and devise a strategy that takes into account what is actually happening and what is likely to happen in response to our actions. This will of course factor in the overwhelming military, economic and diplomatic clout of the US, but they do pay attention to what is actually going on.

    Of course people have red lines in negotiations, this are indispensible. Iran has long recognised the US position on nuclear weapons. They have repeatedly said that they have no intention to militarise and Khamanei has issued legal rulings to the effect that they are un-Islamic. The November NIE–signed off by all the US agencies–says with moderate confidence that Iran has no nuclear weapons programme. The IAEA has long maintained that they have found no evidence of a programme. Many analysts, such as Scott Ritter don’t believe they have a military programme or that they have ever had one. (I have given you links to Gareth Porter’s and Ritter’s articles [also check out his book, Target Iran] and also see Gordon Prather’s articles.)

    When the reality-based community looks at the evidence they don’t see an Iranian nuclear programme but those with a Neoconservative outlook simply assume it because it fits with the agenda of isolating and bomb-bomb-bombing Iran. It is getting to the stage where they can’t actually understand any other way of looking at the world even when it is pointed out.

    Red lines aren’t preconditions. Obama has declared that an Iranian nuclear programme would cross his red lines and made it clear that he is not taking military action of the table (it would make no sense to do so). It is quite another thing to say that you won’t negotiate with Iran because of the nuclear weapons programme that they have, that they say they don’t have, the nuclear weapons programme that nobody can find any evidence for (despite some very vigorous and sustained efforts by the US intelligence agencies).

    As I said, Obama’s policy appears to be coherent one and based on a realist analysis. (To get a much better explanation of the ‘realist school’ see the UC Berkeley interview with Parsi linked above and better Parsi’s book–a blog article and comment can only go so far.)

  4. Annoying Old Guy, AKA Susan’s Husband: I will post a reply to your comment later today (I am on the road).

  5. The November NIE–signed off by all the US agencies–says with moderate confidence that Iran has no nuclear weapons programme.

    Which means, with moderate confidence, they do.

    This reminds me of the intelligence assessment leading up to Desert Storm. No way was Saddam anywhere close to a nuclear weapon.

    Post war intrusive inspections proved beyond doubt that no where close = 18 months.

    When the reality-based community looks at the evidence they don’t see an Iranian nuclear programme …

    No, the “reality based community” sees what it wants to see, regardless of a whole host of reality reasons not to. Worse, the RBC lets itself off the hook by concluding as true that which the precautionary principle insists is far from proven: by defining the problem away, the RBC relieves itself of having to explain, or justify, any alternative course of action.

    But that is almost beside the point. Obama’s declaration he will meet with Ahmadinejad (sp) without preconditions is practically meaningless. Precisely what, after all, are the preconditions in play now to which Obama objects? What are his justifications for rejecting them?

    In response to those obvious questions, I hear nothing but crickets.

    In other words, what AOG said.

    BTW — if there was one group on this planet that I could trust to put up a caricature of Neoconservatism, the NYT would be it. That is not a fact article, it is an opinion article. Before reading the article, I could not possibly tell you what Neoconsertive tenets are.

    I still can’t.

  6. Hey Skipper: you seem to be proving my point about the Neoconservative philosophy. All of the US intelligence agencies signed off on that NIE–all of them. That is almost unprecedented consensus. The vice president held up the assessment for almost a year while the CIA acquired cast-iron evidence they achieved complete consensus. In addition to the intelligence agencies we have the IAEA and independent analysts such as Ritter. And you dismiss all of this because it doesn’t fit your preferred narrative.

    I only quoted Suskind because he was reporting what he was told by a senior member of the administration, that this administration takes the view that it is its business to shape reality and isn’t really very concerned about the facts or the ways things are.

    Obama merely said that he would be prepared in principal to sit down with our enemies if that were in our interest. McCain is saying he won’t because that would legitimise them. The issue is whether to negotiate with Iran or not: Obama says we should keep it as an option, and McCain, along with the Bush administration, is setting as a precondition something that is unacceptable to the Iranians as a precondition, that they unilaterally, with no compensation, renounce their rights under the NPT (a treaty that both countries are bound by) to enrich uranium.

    The Bush/McCain strategy is one of taking diplomacy off the table. Obama is simply saying that he will keep it as an option. It is perfectly coherent and in any other age it wouldn’t even be anything that anyone would consider worth discussing.

    Apart from that I think Obama and his advisers understands the wider critique of why the current Neoconservative policy has been disastrous and needs to be changed. You may disagree with that assessment which is fair enough. I don’t understand why you don’t just say so rather than attempting to have me believe that it is an objective fact, as evident as the fact that the sun set this evening that Obama’s policy is muddled and wrong and so forth. I don’t understand why this blurring of distinctions between objective facts and subjective judgments.

  7. Pingback: Powell’s C-o-S Spills the Beans « Peace & Wisdom

  8. All of the US intelligence agencies signed off on that NIE–all of them …

    I’m surprised that a “realist” would put that much stock in what the NIE estimate actually said, especially considering what everyone knows — and the cite mentioned — what is going on.

    The NIE said the Iranians stopped in 2003 what they deny ever having done. What’s more, the Iranians are busy building centrifuges whose product can be weapons grade plutonium, whilst denying inspectors full access to determine what is really going on.

    Hence my mentioning that “moderate confidence” there is no weapons program by definition means the same evidence leads to “moderate confidence” there is one. “Cast iron evidence” does not lead to “moderate confidence”.

    Realistically speaking, of course.

    Keep in mind the EU, in particular France and the UK, are not buying for a moment this NIE estimate.

    I don’t dismiss the NIE estimate because it doesn’t fit my narrative. I dismiss it because it doesn’t fit the evidence, and because, when reading the actual report, it doesn’t support the headline conclusion to nearly the extent you think it does.

    To quote:

    We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.

    We continue to assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapon.

    Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005.

    Count the quibble words. Then stare in amazement at the inability to conclude with certainty the critical point at hand — whether Iran possesses a nuclear weapon.

    Only a pollyanna, not a realist, would draw the conclusion that fits your narrative.

    Oddly, you don’t seem to draw any conclusions from the Iranians (ostensibly) stopping their nuclear program in 2003, and other events that same year.

    Is that because the shortest distance between those two points does not fit your narrative?

    Obama merely said that he would be prepared in principal to sit down with our enemies if that were in our interest. McCain is saying he won’t because that would legitimise them.

    Obama is merely making statement of the obvious, without burdening himself with declaring what the national interest dictates: his words could not be more vacuous.

    In contrast, McCain is actually saying something. It is not in our national interest to legitimize the Iranians. Now you may well disagree with that, but at least there is something to disagree with.

    Additionally, neither the Bush administration nor McCain are attempting to deprive Iran of its opportunity to enrich uranium; rather, they are attempting to ensure that enrichment is consistent with the NPT, and will not lead to nuclear weapons. It is this which the Iranians are resisting.

    Speaking of realists vs. Neo-conservatives.

    What was the “realist” alternative to invading Iraq?

    How does that differ from the “realist” view of our war against the Former Yugoslavia?

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