Those who endeavor to keep Iran demonized have had to work overtime lately. The imminent departure from office of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the smarmy, Holocaust-questioning Iranian president, was bound to be a loss for the demonizers because he has been for the past eight years an outward face of the Islamic Republic that is easy to dislike. Their loss was made all the greater when the Iranian presidential election yielded a resounding victory for Hassan Rouhani, the most moderate and reasonable-sounding of the candidates. Since then we have seen in Israel and the United States a campaign, by those who would not welcome any agreement with Iran, to throw cold water on hopes and expectations stemming from the election result. That campaign has forged on, seemingly oblivious to (but in reality, perhaps quite conscious of) how U.S. obduracy in the wake of Rouhani's election would send all the wrong kinds of signals to Iran about U.S. intentions. It is such signals, more so than anything having to do with Rouhani's views or political position, that would impede successful negotiation of a nuclear agreement with Tehran.
The throwing of water has been accompanied by digging up of dirt on Rouhani. One accusation that was seized upon was that Rouhani had been part of Iranian decision-making that had led to the bombing of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association building in Buenos Aires in 1994. That incident got back in the news last month when an Argentine prosecutor issued a report that talked about an Iranian presence in the Western Hemisphere that allegedly provides an infrastructure for terrorist attacks to be carried out either directly or by Iran's all Hezbollah. The dirt-diggers suffered a setback when the same prosecutor subsequently stated that according to his findings, Rouhani was not part of any decision-making circle in Tehran connected to the 1994 bombing.
Other parts of the prosecutor's report nonetheless provided some fodder for a larger front in the campaign to sustain alarm about Iran: the idea that the United States is vulnerable to attack through its soft underbelly, from Iranians infiltrating through Latin America. Part of the attraction of this theme is that the threat it postulates is closer and thus scarier than something that might happen on the other side of an ocean. The theme also meshes conveniently with the debate on immigration and specifically with the increased expenditure on border security measures that was a price for securing some of the votes in favor of the immigration bill that passed the Senate. The idea is that more security along the southern border will keep out not only scruffy illegal immigrants looking for jobs but also sophisticated Iranian terrorists looking to kill Americans.
Alarmists recently suffered a setback on this front, too. The State Department has completed a Congressionally-mandated report on Iranian activities in the Western Hemisphere. The legislation that required the report also called for a strategy to counter “Iran's growing hostile presence and activity in the Western Hemisphere”—an example of prejudging conclusions on the very subject the report is supposed to cover. The State Department's conclusions, to the chagrin of those who called for the report, are said to be considerably less alarmist, pointing to a lack of evidence of active Iranian cells or Iranian plots in the hemisphere. One of the authors of the legislation, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), is nonetheless not dissuaded, saying that he knows better than the State Department on this subject. A subcommittee, which Duncan chairs, of the House Homeland Security Committee has scheduled a hearing for next month on “Threat to the Homeland: Iran's Extending Influence in the Western Hemisphere.”
Questions have been raised through the years about the responsibility for that attack in 1994 against the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. Some have pointed to deficiencies in the original investigation by the Argentines and to the possibility that anti-Semitic elements within Argentina (which certainly exist) conducted the attack. Among the biggest reasons for believing that Hezbollah (with whatever that may imply regarding Iranian involvement) was indeed the perpetrator of that attack, as well as a bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires two years earlier, are the likely motivation and the timing. This part of the story, however, usually goes unmentioned by those ringing alarm bells about Iranian terrorism. Each of the two attacks followed by about a month a significant Israeli hostile action back in Lebanon. In 1992 it was the assassination of Hezbollah's Secretary-General, Abbas al-Musawi. In 1994 it was an airstrike on a Hezbollah training camp that killed about 50 recruits. If Iran and Hezbollah were responsible for the attacks in Argentina, this was almost certainly part of the larger pattern of tit-for-tat retaliation for Israeli acts, including terrorist acts. The same pattern has been even more obvious in Iran's more recent attempts to retaliate for the assassinations of its nuclear scientists.
One of the unhelpful aspects of the demonization efforts, whether they concern decision-making in Tehran two decades ago or hypothetical Iranian terrorists wading across the Rio Grande next week, is that they are irrelevant diversions from the actual immediate issues of U.S. policy toward Iran. They tell us nothing about what is likely to work or not to work in terms of negotiating postures, the management of sanctions, or the making of military threats. For some of the most active demonizers, such diversion is the main (but unstated) purpose. The more they can frame the question as one of whether Iranian leaders have been naughty or nice, the more support there will be for the kind of destructive U.S. policies that make a negotiated agreement with Iran less likely.
The question for the United States (and its negotiating partners in the P5+1) is not whether Iranian leaders have been naughty or nice. And it is not whether Hassan Rouhani deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. It is instead the question of how to achieve a resolution of differences with Iran—especially on the nuclear issue about which the demonizers have been the most vocal—that serves U.S. interests. A negotiated agreement is the only way to do that. Getting to a negotiated agreement means making proposals that use the voluminous sanctions against Iran as leverage rather than as unending punishment, and it means avoiding—especially in the wake of the new Iranian president's election—piling on still more sanctions and more threats of military attack, which would make the Iranians more convinced than ever that the only real U.S. objective is regime change, thereby killing Iranian incentives to make concessions the United States seeks.
These are realities no matter what has been the Iranian behavior that we don't like, and no matter in which hemisphere the behavior has occurred.
Most Palestinian Arabs face Israel as residents of the occupied West Bank or the partially blockaded Gaza Strip, or as refugees in surrounding Arab countries. But then there are the Arabs of Israel itself, who constitute about 20 percent of the country's population. Once the Israeli Arabs were looked to as a potential bridge, between other Israelis and other Palestinian Arabs, whose existence might facilitate an eventual settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not any more, and some of the reasons show through in a just-released survey conducted by Sammy Smooha of the University of Haifa in conjunction with the Israel Democracy Institute. The poll was one of a series done over the past several years to tap attitudes of both Arab and Jewish Israelis about relations between the two communities and about the place of Arabs in Israel.
The dominant attitude of most Israeli Arabs is one of alienation. Seventy percent of the Arab respondents say that the government treats them as second-class citizens or as hostile citizens who did not deserve equality. A majority feel “estranged and rejected.” Two-thirds fear a population transfer, and more than three-fourths fear “grave violation of their basic rights.” Only 12 percent of Israeli Arabs consider Israeli citizenship to be their most important identity, as opposed to their religion or ethnicity. This represents a sharp drop during the past decade, and the opposite of a trend during the same period among Israeli Jews, who were asked a similar question. Fifty-nine percent of Israeli Arabs say that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would be justified in starting a third Intifada “if the political stalemate continues.”
The survey's findings regarding Jewish Israeli attitudes were more of a mixed bag but reflect some of the same wide gulf between the two communities. More than two-thirds believe that anyone who self-identifies as “a Palestinian Arab in Israel” cannot be loyal to the state and its laws. Twenty-eight percent favor denying Arabs the right to vote in elections for the Knesset. Sixty-five percent would choose the Jewish character of Israel over its democratic character to the extent the two come in conflict.
There are nonetheless signs that if prevailing Israeli policies and priorities were to change, a better relationship between the two communities might be possible. Despite the alienation, the Arabs' responses suggest realism about their situation. Majorities of Arab respondents said they were reconciled to living in a state with a Jewish majority and a Hebrew culture, and a majority said they would rather remain in Israel than live in any other country. As for Jewish attitudes, Smooha perceives evidence of movement toward centrist views, and with that an absence of any broad trend of even harder attitudes toward Arab citizens. But, he says, a “vocal radical Jewish right” has emerged and has “succeeded in reinforcing the alienation of the Arab minority and in engendering growing fear of collapse of democracy among the elites of the center and the left.”
Unfortunately it is that destructive element in Israeli politics that has been driving Israeli policy, including driving it in directions that make the second-class status of Arab Israeli citizens even worse. Mitchell Plitnick, in raising broader questions about what sorts of values are reflected in Israeli policies toward all the Palestinians, notes that the Knesset has taken the first step toward passing legislation that would evict tens of thousands of Israeli Bedouin—who are some of the Arab citizens of Israel—from land in the Negev where they have lived for generations, since well before Israel's establishment. A proposed use of the land is the construction of new Jewish communities, thereby mirroring what has happened repeatedly in the occupied West Bank. As Plitnick suggests, whatever values underlie such policies, in which a country shoves aside even its own citizens solely because of their ethnicity and to favor a different ethnic group, are not values shared with America.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/מוחמד אבו אלהיגא - שוקו. CC BY-SA 3.0.
In their long history of practicing the dark arts of misleading the public, political leaders have enjoyed much success in getting people to believe what is not true, and what even just a small amount of inquiry or research would demonstrate is untrue. Totalitarian regimes in particular have been able to do this, relying in large part on what is known as the Big Lie—an untruth that overwhelms any skepticism through the authority and lack of equivocation with which it is repeatedly pronounced. The power of the Big Lie comes partly from its sheer audacity but also from the repetition: the serial drumming of an idea into the heads of an unwitting public.
In societies with free speech and a free press there is some deterrence against telling outright whoppers. Usually fact-checking critics, who include energetic journalists as well as some who are trying to protect opposing political interests, are ready and eager to point out falsehoods. Even that is not enough of a deterrent to some who do not consider themselves part of the reality-based community and who merrily dispense their own odd version of the truth.
For those deterred from telling outright falsehoods, the same sort of repetition that helps to make the Big Lie work can be used to considerable effect with a more indirect technique. This is to cultivate an idea in the public mind by asking it as a question, raising it as a possibility, or just associating two otherwise unrelated things by speaking of them in the same sentences. Do this enough times, over and over, and even a proposition that has no basis in reality takes root in the public consciousness. Once rooted, it becomes resistant to uprooting and has a good chance of becoming conventional wisdom that, as such, becomes repeatedly referred to even more. The technique that gets the false idea started is not the Big Lie; it is the Big Insinuation.
A flagrant, and consequential, example of this process was the effort by the George W. Bush administration, in its campaign to build support for the Iraq War, to associate the Iraqi regime with the terrorism of al-Qaeda and especially with the 9/11 attack. The association was accomplished not by telling specific lies but instead mostly by incessantly uttering “Iraq,” “terrorism,” and “9/11” in the same breath and talking about how 9/11 taught us that we cannot wait in dealing with a supposed threat such as Saddam Hussein's regime. This part of the campaign worked. Polls indicated that although only a tiny proportion of the public suspected immediately after 9/11 that Iraq had anything to do with it, on the eve of the Iraq war—after more than a year of the associative utterances—about two-thirds of Americans had come to believe that Saddam had been involved in the September 11th terrorist attack.
Something similar is happening with the “scandal” at the Internal Revenue Service as a result of Congressional Republicans and like-minded commentators loudly and repeatedly suspecting, expecting and predicting (and less loudly, hoping) that evidence would be found showing that the White House had directed the IRS to treat political groups on the Right differentially and unfavorably in reviewing applications for tax-exempt status. Despite enormous investigative effort devoted to that end, not an iota of such evidence has been found. What has instead been found makes the scenario of White House direction all the more implausible, given that the groups whose applications had been flagged for closer scrutiny included not only the ones on the Right that had gotten all the publicity but also ones on the Left and various others that the administration would have no interest in undermining, such as organizations working to promote Obamacare. Not only has there been no evidence of White House involvement; there is not even any evidence of misconduct within the IRS. At most there was a slightly blunt and clumsy use of search terms to try to streamline the very difficult task of enforcing an ill-written law that says tax-exempt groups can do some politicking but this can't be most of what they do.
Despite the total lack of supporting evidence, the Big Insinuation has already had a marked effect on public perceptions. A CNN/ORC poll taken two weeks ago indicates that 47 percent of Americans (up from 37 percent in May) believe that senior White House officials ordered the IRS to target conservative political groups. There are the usual divisions by party affiliation, but even a majority of self-identified independents believe there was such a White House order (51 percent, versus 45 percent who believe the IRS acted on its own).
This is the sort of already-rooted mistaken belief that even disclaimers by those who have done some of the insinuating will not correct. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, speaking last week at the American Enterprise Institute, acknowledged to the disappointment of his audience that a hoped-for smoking gun of White House involvement probably doesn't exist. But he continued the effort to associate the White House with the “scandal,” accusing the president of encouraging “bureaucratic overreach” and trying to shift any burden of proof on to the White House. His speech was similar in that respect to a speech on the Middle East that George W. Bush gave shortly before he left office. Bush issued the requisite disclaimer that Iraq wasn't actually involved in 9/11, but then he delivered more of the all-in-the-same-breath associative language, rhetorically linking Iraq to 9/11, that had created the mistaken public belief that it was.
Everyone who cares about informed discussion of public affairs ought to care about the damage done by the Big Insinuation, regardless of which side of the political spectrum one would like to see scoring or losing points. Expressing outrage cannot be left to a fact-checking Glenn Kessler, who would not necessarily have an explicit lie to work with. The IRS “scandal” has already received far too much attention, but the damage there includes spoiling any chance for a legitimate debate on why tax-exempt status should be given to groups doing any politicking, regardless of whether it is of the Left, Right or Center. No one is being prevented from political activity; why should I and other taxpayers in effect foot part of the bill for that activity?
And as we saw a decade ago, sometimes the damage to the country, including in matters involving foreign policy, can be far greater.
The two and a half years of uprisings in the Middle East known collectively as the Arab Spring have had an apparent hole in the middle; there has not been a new full-blown uprising during this time by Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. This fact is testimony to the ruthlessly effective control measures of Israel, with a security apparatus that outclasses any mukhabarat in the Arab world. The Palestinian outlook in the face of these control measures is a combination of despair and being deterred. The Palestinians have been there and done that, with two previous multi-year uprisings, known as the First and Second Intifadas, in their recent history. They have every reason to expect that the Israeli response to a third uprising—especially given the direction of Israeli politics since the previous two—will be to press down even harder on the levers of control, not to do anything to move toward self-determination for the Palestinians.
The Palestinians also can see that, despite some erosion in the international support that Israeli governments have long been able to count on, there is little sign that the reactions of the international community, and most importantly of the United States, will be appreciably different next time. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu—some elements of which are quite candid about this—evidently intends to retain the West Bank indefinitely, is continuing the colonization program that has been putting a two-state solution farther out of reach, and shows no sign of fearing pressure over any of this from the world and especially from the United States, even with the intensified international attention that a new uprising would bring.
None of this, however, changes the instability inherent in subjugation of the Palestinians. The humiliation, the heavy personal costs, the impairment of daily life and the frustration of national aspirations are all still part of that reality. Human reactions to such situations tend to be more emotional, more matters of anger and frustration than of calm calculation of the adversary's likely responses. A new uprising thus is probably only a matter of time. Exactly how much time is unpredictable; the timing of spontaneous uprisings for which the ingredients are already in place is always unpredictable. But as a point of reference, seven years transpired between the end of the First Intifada and the outbreak of the Second. The Second Intifada did not have a clear-cut end, but it has now been about eight years since it petered out.
A report on instability in the occupied territories published last month by the International Crisis Group reviews some of these realities. The report does not say a new uprising is imminent, but it observes:
Many conditions for an uprising are objectively in place: political discontent, lack of hope, economic fragility, increased violence and an overwhelming sense that security cooperation serves an Israeli – not Palestinian – interest.
Outside powers, and especially the United States, need to be prepared for a new Palestinian uprising whenever it finally occurs. They also need to be prepared for the Israeli government's response, which will be to couple a crackdown on the ground with declarations that in the midst of such turmoil nothing can or should be done to move toward Palestinian self-determination. The path of least political resistance will be once again to acquiesce in practice to this Israeli posture, while paying lip service to the need for diplomacy that works toward creation of a Palestinian state.
The path of greater political resistance would be the right path, which would be to address squarely what underlies the unrest. That path would recognize explicitly that following the Israeli lead means that no time would ever be right for moving meaningfully toward a Palestinian state. It would recognize that if there is a crisis of legitimacy with Palestinian political entities (manifested most recently in serial resignations by prime ministers of the Palestinian Authority), this is largely because even when the Palestinians have had capable leaders their role has been limited mostly to assisting in carrying out Israel's security and administrative responsibilities as an occupying power. And it would recognize that if the Palestinians are divided between the competing political factions of Fatah and Hamas this is in large part because Israel has done everything possible to keep them from reconciling.
Taking the politically easy path will set the table for a Fourth Intifada and beyond. The current Israeli leaders evidently believe that they can live comfortably enough with this prospect. They see Palestinian disturbances now and then as a cost of doing business—the business in this case being to incorporate eventually and permanently all of the occupied West Bank into a greater Israel. The United States needs instead to pay attention to two things: what a just resolution of this long-running conflict would look like; and especially what is in U.S. interests—which run in a much different direction from the Israeli government's objective of favoring land over peace.
Image: Flickr/Israel Defense Forces. CC BY 2.0.
The timing is probably coincidence, but it is hard not to notice how popular disturbances that have shaken major cities in Brazil have come right after big street protests in Turkey. These are, of course, two very important countries, which pull considerable weight in affairs far beyond their own borders. One of them is one of the BRICS and the largest country in the Western hemisphere after the United States. The other is at a critical junction of Europe and the Middle East and is a key player in addressing such problems as the war in Syria. The two have even worked together on some issues of importance to the United States—most notably in brokering a deal on Iran's nuclear program to which Tehran agreed and that, had the United States not backtracked from a formula that it had once proposed itself, might have put us on the road to settling this matter.
It would be easy to dismiss any coupling of the situations in Turkey and Brazil, given the obvious differences. The immediate explicit issues are different: proposed redevelopment of a city park and square in one case; increased transit fares in the other. The incumbent governments are not at all alike, one having a long-serving leader who heads a moderately Islamist party, and the other a newer president heading a leftist movement. But a very important similarity is that they are both democracies. Not only that, but democracies which, although each has a military that had been involved in politics in the not-too-distant past, have come to be considered stable, with their armies now expected to stay in the barracks.
That raises the question: why should there be such protests at all? The governments being protested against were freely and democratically elected. With the ballot box available, why should there be recourse to the street?
Several possible lines of inquiry come to mind. We may be seeing a process of incumbents losing touch with their constituents over time, especially when incumbents or their parties have been in power for a long time. Some have suggested this is true especially of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Even democratically elected leaders may come to have an inflated sense of knowing better than the citizenry what is in the citizenry's own best interest. And even democratically elected leaders may have a bias in favor of what is flashy or prestigious or symbolic rather than what affects most people's daily lives. In Turkey's case this includes Erdogan's desire to hark back to Ottoman glories with the structure he wants to erect in place of the park that has been at the center of protests in Istanbul. In Brazil's case this includes huge resources being spent on hosting the soccer World Cup and the Olympic Games—resources unavailable for many other programs that would affect the welfare of ordinary Brazilians.
No doubt there is also a lot of sociology to be explored on the protestors' end. Dissertations probably can be written that can explain some of what we are seeing in terms of generational change, evolving class structures, or the like. Pending the development of such knowledge and any better explanations for what has been going on in the streets of these two countries, a few more general observations can be ventured.
One is that even relatively stable and well-established democracies are more fragile than we might like to think. And before we get too haughty in distinguishing our own democracy from those in Brazil and Turkey, recall that the United States has had its share of nasty disturbances in its streets in the not-distant past. The same question about why a democratically elected government should be the target of action in the street can be applied to the United States as well as to Brazil and Turkey.
A related observation is that, although representative democracy is still the least bad form of government and the one best able to align the actions of the rulers to the interests of the ruled, it still has deficiencies. It does not solve all problems of stability and responsiveness. We should remember this whenever we are tempted to think of democratization as a cure for whatever overseas ill we may be focusing on at the moment.
A final observation is that these disturbances evidently were a surprise even to those who were in power in the countries involved and thus had the biggest stake in being able to anticipate the trouble. We should remember this the next time we are tempted to berate our own experts or government agencies for not predicting such things that happen overseas.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Mstyslav Chernov. CC BY-SA 3.0.
With the double milestones in Afghanistan of NATO turning over the remainder of its combat role to Afghan government forces and the announced imminent opening of peace talks with the Taliban, it is an appropriate time to note a few lessons demonstrated by this war.
Foreign military expeditions are more likely to be longer and costlier than expected than to be shorter and cheaper. Most Americans would have been astounded back in the autumn of 2001 if told that U.S. troops would still be fighting and dying in Afghanistan more than eleven years later. Other examples come easily to mind, the Iraq War of the past decade being an especially obvious one. An exception to this pattern was Operation Desert Storm in 1991, aided by the clarity and limited nature of the objective of liberating Kuwait.
Finding off-ramps is hard. The initial goals of the intervention in Afghanistan, of rousting the perpetrators of 9/11 from their haven and ousting their then-allies from power, were noble. They were achieved in the first few weeks of the intervention, after which it probably would have been better to declare the operation a success and go home. But mission creep is a ubiquitous phenomenon.
Welcomes get worn out. Afghanistan used to be a rare oasis in the Muslim world of favorable sentiment toward the United States. The dissipation of much of that goodwill is the almost inevitable result of the damage, frictions, and anger that come from foreign occupation and the operations of a foreign military force.
Diplomacy usually shapes final outcomes. Most armed conflicts, including civil wars, end with some negotiated coming to terms. That is true even of most one-sided outcomes. The surrender Grant accepted at Appomattox was not unconditional; it was a negotiated surrender, which let Confederates keep their horses and the officers among them keep their sidearms. Again, there are exceptions; the Sri Lankan government's final eradication of the Tamil Tigers in 2009 did not involve a coming to terms. The conditions for any similar outcome have never been present in Afghanistan.
Increased pressure doesn't necessarily mean increased results. There has been much talk over the past couple of years from some quarters in the United States that any easing of the pressure on the Afghan Taliban would only make the Taliban less interested in making peace. We aren't hearing elaboration of that view from the same quarters today, as the Taliban's acceptance of peace talks occurs at the same time NATO steps down from its combat role.
Adversaries' interests, like ours, change. We have a tendency to pigeon-hole other actors as either friends or implacable enemies and to view them that way forever. This view usually is mistaken, as it would be today in Afghanistan. The Taliban would have little or no interest in the United States without the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, and the United States would have little interest in the Taliban without their prior association with al-Qa'ida. Today the Taliban's incentives are against any renewal of the association. It is entirely realistic to look forward to a peace agreement that cements that change.
Hassan Rouhani's stunning and sweeping victory in the Iranian presidential election is already generating much debate among expert Iran-watchers about how to interpret this outcome. There are different views, for example, on what inference should be drawn regarding the posture of Supreme Leader Khamenei toward the election. Was this outcome one that the leader might have anticipated and is part of a skillful management of contending factions, or does the election result instead indicate that the leader's control of Iranian politics is less than was often surmised? There also are different views on what role sanctions-induced economic strain may have had on the election. These are genuine questions on which objective and well-informed observers can disagree. Not genuine is the spin from some other fast-off-the-mark commentators who are endeavoring to deny any significance to Rouhani's victory and to portray the Iranian regime as nothing but the same old recalcitrant adversary—a spin motivated by opposition to reaching agreements with Iran and the favoring of confrontation and even war with it.
Useful implications for policy toward Iran can be drawn without resolving all these analytical questions, even the genuine ones. Sometimes a particular course of action is the best course under any of several different interpretations of exactly what is going on in another nation's capital. This is one of those instances. In particular, there are clear implications for approaching the next stage of negotiations on, and policy toward, Iran's nuclear program—which, for better or for worse, is the subject dominating discussion of relations with the Islamic Republic.
One thing that the Iranian election would have changed no matter what the outcome on election day is that we soon will not have Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to kick around any more. The end of his distracting and annoying presence can only be to the good. Perhaps at least a little more serious attention will be devoted in the United States to policy and diplomacy when there is a little less energy allocated to expressing outrage over the outgoing Iranian president's mistranslated quotes about wiping maps and his other intentionally inflammatory rhetoric.
Rouhani's win brings to Iran's presidency the candidate who was least associated with attributes of the Iranian regime that the West finds most offensive. While one must always be careful in affixing labels to individual leaders and factions in Iranian politics, the pre-election characterization of Rouhani as the most moderate of the six candidates remaining in the race until election day is accurate. The election result also is a vote in favor of flexibility and going the extra mile to reach agreement in the nuclear negotiations. In this regard one of the significant aspects of the result is not only how well Rouhani did but also how bad the result was for one of the other candidates, Saeed Jalili, the current nuclear negotiator. Conduct of the negotiations was an issue in the campaign. Yet another candidate, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati (who possibly could become foreign minister again under Rouhani) pointedly criticized Jalili in one of the candidates' debates for apparently expecting too much from the other side while offering little in return. Jalili, who before the election had been dubbed the supreme leader's man and was considered by some the favorite, finished a far-behind third place, with less than a quarter as many votes as Rouhani.
There clearly is an opportunity for diplomatic progress. More to the point, there is a challenge, to the United States and its P5+1 partners in the nuclear negotiations, to do their part to make such progress possible. This is true no matter which of several possible interpretations of the details of politics in Iran is valid. Whether the supreme leader is stage-managing a process that leads to an outcome he has always welcomed, or is being pushed toward that outcome by forces and sentiments he cannot control, the implication for western policy is the same. We should spend less time trying to interpret what's happening on the other side and more time thinking about how the other side interprets our policies. This is important because a lack of Iranian confidence in the West's desire and willingness to make a deal and to stick with it almost certainly has been one of the impediments to progress in the nuclear negotiations.
Rouhani's election presents the United States and its partners with a test—of our intentions and seriousness about reaching an agreement. Failure of the test will confirm suspicions in Tehran that we do not want a deal and instead are stringing along negotiations while waiting for the sanctions to wreak more damage. Passage of the test will require placing on the table a proposal that, in return for the desired restrictions on Iran's nuclear activities, incorporates significant relief from economic sanctions and at least tacit acceptance of a continued peaceful Iranian nuclear program, to include low-level enrichment of uranium. The sad fact is that the criticism Velayati leveled at Jalili's negotiating approach could be applied just as easily to the approach of the P5+1, which so far have coupled their demands about the nuclear program with sanctions relief that is only a pittance compared to the large and ever-growing array of sanctions applied to Iran. Passage of the test also means not making any proposal an ultimatum that is coupled with threats of military force, which only feed Iranian suspicions that for the West the negotiations are a box-checking prelude to war and regime change.
The Iranian electorate has in effect said to the United States and its Western partners, “We've done all we can. Among the options that the Guardian Council gave us, we have chosen the one that offers to get us closest to accommodation, agreement and understanding with the West. Your move, America.”
Sometimes a child is able to drag a parent into doing something the parent might not really want to do—say, taking the kid to an amusement park—through a two-step process. The first step is to nag, repeatedly and insistently, about going to the park. The parent, not wanting to be bothered about such a chore, tries to buy time and assuage the child by saying that they aren't going to the park now but they will when a suitable day arises. After some time goes by and the trip to the amusement park still has not been taken, the child's theme becomes, “But you promised.” The issue is framed no longer just in terms of the pros and cons of going to the amusement park but also in terms of the parent's credibility. The parent, worried about maintaining credibility of both promises and threats on other possible matters, gives in.
A similar process is occurring with some of those who, for whatever ill-conceived reason, would welcome a war with Iran. With some of the same people, it is occurring also with the nearer-term issue of intervening in the civil war in Syria. In each case step one is agitation in favor of threatening the use of military force. Step two is to argue that unless the threat is carried out, U.S. credibility will be damaged. Similar to the child who wants to go to the amusement park, the same persons whose urgings led us to get into an option-reducing box then yammer about the damage that results from being in that box, unless we get out of it in the particular way they want.
On Iran, it is hard to know exactly how President Obama, in his innermost thoughts, views the nuclear activities of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is a fair guess that he does not subscribe to the repeatedly expressed notion that those activities constitute the Greatest Threat to Mankind in Our Time. He clearly does not want a war with Iran. But he is faced with repeated, insistent nagging about this from the government of Israel, and thus from those in the United States who support that government, and thus with all of the U.S. political implications that implies. Not wanting to have his presidency completely sidelined by such things, he tries to buy time and assuage the naggers by saying that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be unacceptable and that all options are on the table to prevent that eventuality. His statements are already fodder for lots of warnings about how badly U.S. credibility supposedly would be harmed if he does not make good on the promise he seems to have made. Some of the loudest voices in making those warnings are those whose pestering pressured him into making the promise in the first place.
On Syria, Mr. Obama seems to have allowed himself to be pushed into a similar box, with earlier statements about how President Assad must go and more recent ones about the use of chemical weapons as a “red line.” Some of the pressures to which he has been responding involve the same sort of two-step tactic as is being used on Iran. A glaring example is provided this week by Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In an opinion piece titled “How to Make Diplomacy on Syria Succeed,” Singh argues that the United States “must credibly put on the table the option of military intervention,” including direct operations by U.S. forces and not just the arming of Syrian rebels. In a separate piece published on the same day and titled “U.S. Credibility on Iran at Stake in Syria,” Singh talks in the same breath as mentioning the “military option” that “Washington's failure to push back on Iranian aggression in Syria” is undercutting “the credibility of Western warnings.” He goes on with more ominous language about a “vicious cycle” of lost influence in which “not just for Tehran” but elsewhere in the region “American influence is everywhere diminished.” What a deliciously constructed chain of entrapment: starting with the innocent goal of supporting diplomacy on Syria, we are led to threats of military force, and then to actual use of force, and then to the big prize of confrontation with Iran.
There are many things wrong with this, too numerous to mention them all. What Singh says, for example, about the impact of threats of U.S. military intervention on Syria diplomacy is inconsistent when considering the impact on both the thinking of the Syrian regime and its backers, on one hand, and the rebels and their backers, on the other. The commonly heard assertions about how threats of military force ought to aid the nuclear negotiations with Iran naively overlook how such threats are more likely to have counterproductive effects on Iranian perceptions and incentives, by lending credibility to the belief that Washington only wants regime change and to any arguments within the Iranian regime that it needs a nuclear deterrent. The talk about how actions in one theater are supposed to shape perceptions of U.S. credibility somewhere else also is inconsistent with the actual record of how governments assess the credibility of other governments.
Perhaps the most offensive thing about this approach is the manipulation involved in first pushing us—and our leaders—into a difficult position and then pushing us to do even more harmful things to get out of that same position. In a general way this is related not only to a kid who pesters his parent to go to the amusement park but also to the kid who killed his parents and then called for mercy because he was an orphan.
A perpetual, and perpetually misguided, American notion about international negotiations is that sitting down to talk constitutes some sort of reward for the party on the other side of the table—a reward to be bestowed only in return for good behavior. This notion may be involved, even if only indirectly, in the curious U.S. resistance to participation by Iran in the prospective international conference about the conflict in Syria. Perhaps the resistance has more recently lessened; on Tuesday the deputy Iranian foreign minister commented in Moscow that Iran had received a “verbal invitation” to attend the conference, without specifying who had extended the invitation. We should hope that the verbal invitation will turn out to be a firm one.
The United States has been joined in its resistance by France. Maybe Paris's posture has been rooted somehow in old French hang-ups about the Levant. The reason for the similar posture by the Obama administration, notwithstanding its leadership role along with Russia in arranging the conference in the first place, is unclear. If the administration itself does not subscribe to the talking-as-reward school of thought, possibly the policy has been just one more manifestation of an environment in Washington in which anything that could be construed as a positive gesture toward Iran is considered bad politics and the opposite is always good politics.
From the standpoint of trying to ameliorate the situation in Syria, there is no way that exclusion of Iran can help, no matter how negative and nefarious a role the Iranians are assumed to be playing. The general principle involved is that the only peace talks that are ever meaningful are ones with adversaries, not with just friends and allies. In the Syrian case, anyone playing any significant role in the conflict, positive or negative, ipso facto belongs at the table.
If the Iranians have reason to do things regarding the Syrian conflict now, with no peace talks, that we consider unhelpful, they would have no less reason to do similar things if they are excluded from any talks that do take place. There would be more possibility of change with the dialogue and deal-making at a conference. Exclusion would only increase Iran's incentive to find other ways to make its weight felt.
Perhaps some of the thinking has been that no encouragement should be given to Iran playing any significant regional role, not just on Syria. But players in the region are not going to take instructions from Paris and Washington regarding how they should regard other regional players and whom they should deal with. Besides, anything that leads the Iranians to feel more of a stake in regional stability is on balance good. Exactly what that should mean in terms of Iranian behavior is something worth talking to them about.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Danish Interpretation Systems. CC BY-SA 3.0.
Sixteen years ago I participated in the annual summer study of the Defense Science Board, a panel of senior experts and executives from the private sector created in the 1950s to advise the Department of Defense on scientific and technical matters. The summer study is the board's biggest project each year, for which it assembles a large ad hoc task force going well beyond the board's own membership. The topic of the study performed in 1997 was DoD Responses to Transnational Threats. I worked with a science and technology subgroup that made its principal focus the use of modern information technology to collect and exploit data pertinent to terrorist threats.
The resulting report recommended aggressive exploitation of the then-new World Wide Web and data-handling technology available in the private sector to perform such collection and exploitation. The report talked about the importance of exploiting “meta-information” on use of the Internet as well as substantive information possibly pertinent to terrorist threats. The term “data mining” was used, not as a dirty word but instead as a descriptor of the kind of technology that the government ought to employ more extensively. Perhaps as a reflection of the fact that it was mainly scientists and engineers and not lawyers who wrote this part of the report, there was no mention of drawing fine lines or indeed any lines between collection abroad and within the United States.
The report was another indication, ignored by or unbeknownst to the many people who believe serious U.S. counterterrorism didn't begin until September 2001, that much serious attention was being given to the subject, and to better ways of doing counterterrorism, well before that. My own participation in the Defense Science Board study—at the time I was a government official with counterterrorist responsibilities in the intelligence community—was an indication of that. The public reaction to 9/11 would give a big boost, of course, both to the resources devoted to all kinds of countereterrorist activities and to the aggressiveness with which something like large-scale exploitation of data and meta-data could be pursued. Much of the kind of information management that the 1997 report discussed corresponded to the “connect the dots” activity that is a familiar demand after any perceived failure by the government agencies involved. Actually a better metaphor is finding needles in haystacks, or better yet, finding the few needles that matter in a stack of other needles that don't.
But the mood and thus the priorities of the public, as reflected in the press and Congress, shift over time on any subject on which security conflicts with something like privacy, depending on how long it has been since the last thing that upset the public and what the nature of the upset was. Aggressive exploitation of data that once was not only accepted but expected later becomes a matter of objection and controversy. Thus government agencies that are the target of recriminations at one time for not doing enough of something later are the target of recriminations for doing too much of the same thing. The latest hubbub about exploitation of Internet or telephonic communications should be viewed as the latest swing in the ever-swinging pendulum of the public mood about such things.
Meanwhile the hubbub provides little or no perspective to the government activity in question with regard to such things as comparing the implications of government possession of a piece of information with the far more extensive holdings of the same kind of information by private sector organizations. For all that gets said about whether the multiple controls and checks in the judicial and legislative branches are sufficient for what the government does, nothing gets said about the implications of a corporation collecting and holding such data with no checks or controls at all, save for possible eventual sanction by an often highly imperfect marketplace if something were to go badly and embarrassingly wrong.
When leaks are involved, as they are once again in the latest instance, there again is scant attention in the public discussion to the damage done by the leaks. In this case the principal damage is to cooperation and trust between government agencies and the relevant Internet and telecommunications companies. There also is undeserved direct damage to the companies themselves. The ones that have cooperated should be applauded for performing a duty in accordance with the law and with the interests of national security. Instead, because of leaks, they have been handed a major public relations headache. Their businesses have been hit with an undetermined but undeniable cost. The incentive for future cooperation has just gone down.
We also are again hearing nonsense about how a leak is somehow critical for obtaining public accountability or a public debate. Any other members of Congress who listened to Ron Wyden or Mark Udall could have joined their cause if they were so inclined and there would have been the debate. But evidently other members, including the leaderships of both parties, were not so inclined.
This is yet another instance of how what gets the attention of the public, the Congress, and the media is less a function of the intrinsic importance of the topic—even when some members of relevant Congressional committees diligently do their jobs—but instead of what becomes a flap, especially if it is sexed up by something like pilfered PowerPoint slides.
Image: Jon Hopkins, CC BY-SA 2.0.